What Lies Beneath (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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What Lies Beneath

MR. ROB SACHS

13:29:43
We head now back to D.C. and down, way down, beneath the city streets to the tunnels.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:29:48
In this case, the tunnels beneath the Library of Congress. That's where I met up with Paul Dickson, "Metro Connection's" resident historian and co-author of, "On This Spot," pinpointing the past in Washington, D.C. These walkways connect the library's three buildings and provide a subterranean path to the capitol, which, of course ,has tunnels of its own. But it isn't like we're living in, you know, Montreal where you've got these frigid cold winters driving everyone underground.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:30:15
I mean, it's cold out, right? But not like Montreal cold.

SACHS

13:30:17
Yeah.

SHEIR

13:30:17
So why all the tunnels in the nation's capitol? Well, Paul Dickson says, think about it.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:30:23
The idea is several, but one of them is when you walk across Capitol Hill, you don't see great gaggles of senators and great gaggles of librarians. And part of it is to let those people be a little bit removed in the sense that, could you imagine if congressmen were walking across the street, to -- from one building to another? There'd be lobbyists challenging them at every step and people with signs. And likewise for the library. A lot of the business of this city is -- has to be conducted with some degree of privacy.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:30:51
And for researchers, I spend a lot of time as a writer. I spend a ton of time at the Library of Congress. I love this place. But when I get here, especially on a cold or very hot day, it's a lot easier to scoot under the tunnels. They're always sort of the same temperature and there are always pleasant people. And the other tunnels on Capitol Hill are not open to the public. The ones that connect Congress were closed after 9/11 and three of the tunnels under Congress have subways in them.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:31:18
And one of the -- one of the subways goes back to 1909 and that was replaced over time. But there's two subways on the Senate side, one just goes to Russell, one goes to the other Senate office buildings. There's one on the House side and then the other -- the Cannon building, you have to get to by pedestrian walkway. But the whole part of that capitol, I mean, there are utility tunnels. You don't see any electrical poles. You don't see -- I mean, there utility...

SHEIR

13:31:41
Yeah, you don't, come to think of it.

DICKSON

13:31:42
Yeah. No, I know. A lot of those were buried downtown early, but the whole hill is -- got this underground network of things, which serve the Hill. The subways used to be a lot of fun. You could actually go with your congressman and get down there -- or congressperson. And the -- if you want to see the old one -- this is a great bit of trivia. The old one, which had wicker seats and was purely Victorian and was built at the Navy yard, it was like a 1906, 1909 variety vehicle.

DICKSON

13:32:08
If you see the movie, "Advise and Consent," some night on Turner Broadcasting, you can see the actual -- the vehicle in there.

SHEIR

13:32:14
Oh, wow.

DICKSON

13:32:15
But there's a practical utility all this and -- which is that it also affords this privacy. I think of one moment in particular. In the early '30s, a group of veterans came to Washington to petition for a bonus which had been promised them. They didn't get it and they basically were lobbying Congress to get the bonus. After a long summer, 1932, the House of Representatives passed the bonus bill and they were thrilled. They thought they were going to get their money, which was compensation for wartime service and the Senate did not pass it.

DICKSON

13:32:40
And the veterans were all at one end of the, sort of, the House side of the Hill at that point, thousands of them. And there were some worries as to whether or not they might get angry and, in fact, there was somebody there who actually got them to sing, "God Bless America," and they ended up not being hostile at all. But the senators, fearful that there might be some -- not violence, but as much as confrontation, these guys -- why the heck didn't you pass my bonus? They all slipped out through the tunnels.

DICKSON

13:33:11
So it -- there's -- sometimes a congressman does not want to come face to face with somebody putting placard in their face so this is a convenient way of keeping everything moving.

SHEIR

13:33:20
Okay. So we've listed a few tunnels so far. Are there other tunnels in Washington, D.C.?

DICKSON

13:33:23
Well, there are several, some of which no longer exist, of course, the famous one under DuPont Circle which has been a problematic for years. There's a huge one at Union Station and nobody -- it goes nowhere. It's only about 500 feet, but nobody really knows why...

SHEIR

13:33:36
Why -- we don't know why it was built?

DICKSON

13:33:38
No. But now, the one we do know, there used to be one when the old post office was down next to Union Station. It still is the Postal Museum. It still looks like a post office. But when they moved the post office to Brentwood, there was a tunnel between the government printing office and the post office. So all these congressional records, all this huge amount of mail was just going through the tunnel and then out the other sides. So -- but the capitol is the jewel in the crown.

SHEIR

13:34:01
Well, Paul Dickson, as ever and always, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us today.

DICKSON

13:34:04
Thank you.

SHEIR

13:34:06
To see what that early 20th century subway car looks like, you can rent, "Advise And Consent," sure, but you can also just hop over to our website, metroconnection.org.
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