Digging Deep: Cracking The Mystery Of The Dupont Circle Tunnels (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Digging Deep: Cracking the Mystery of the Dupont Circle Tunnels

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:23:25
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week we're making like Sherlock Holmes and digging into mysteries, puzzles and enigmas of the D.C. region. And in this next story, we do mean digging. So we're standing in this parking lot here and underneath us is where this crazy catacomb tunnel system was.

MS. KIM BENDER

13:23:43
Right.

SHEIR

13:23:44
That's so wild.

BENDER

13:23:45
And I would love to dig down a little and see.

SHEIR

13:23:48
Okay, just to help you get your bearings a bit. The parking lot in question is in Northwest D.C., just off DuPont Circle, behind the Hotel Palomar so right around 21st and P. From where we're standing, you can see the hotel, of course, the backs of a couple of houses. Do you think the people living there have any idea?

BENDER

13:24:04
I don't know. I should knock -- maybe I'll knock on the door.

SHEIR

13:24:07
But Kim Bender is not knocking on any doors, not on this particular morning anyway. Instead, the D.C. preservation buff and author of the blog The Location is here to share a tale she unearthed, if you will, while researching the early 20th century developer, Harry Wardman. She was shuffling through the Washington Post archives when she stumbled upon a tiny little article dated May 19, 1917, with the following headline.

BENDER

13:24:33
Workmen find secret tunnel. Brick passage 100 feet long, may be relic of 1812 or Civil War. And you can see it's a tiny blurb. And I said, I wonder if this became, like, more of a story? So I just sort of kept researching it. And I did more searches on the Washington Post. And it was covered again in 1924 when the superintendent for the building that Harry Wardman had built, Pelham Courts on P Street, when they were excavating, they found it originally, then they built the building on top of it. Then the building superintendent in 1924 was driving his truck in back of that building and his tires fell through the ground. And so he and the janitor for the building decided to go down and check out the tunnels and alerted the newspaper. And for, like, three days, it became this mystery.

SHEIR

13:25:22
What did they see? What do the tunnels look like? What was there?

BENDER

13:25:26
It's hard to know exactly what the tunnels looked like because a lot of the newspaper articles seem a little sensationalist. But they're described as being eight feet high, as much as four feet wide, going around 200 to 500 feet depending on who's reporting on it, all sorts of passages on multiple levels. It was lined with enameled brick. There were electric light bulbs hanging off the ceiling. And this what really made the story explode a little bit.

BENDER

13:25:55
They found German language newspapers from 1917 pasted to the ceiling.

SHEIR

13:26:00
Whoa.

BENDER

13:26:01
Yeah. And I think that set off the whole possibility that it was a World War I spy hideout. They found straw, they said. And so there were theories that it was bootleggers. And then, they had all of these theories. And the city ate it up. People were charging money to go down into the tunnels for about three days. And then, at the end of those three days, all of a sudden, this man comes forward and says, I did it. No, I'm the one that dug the tunnels. And he wasn't some spy and he wasn't some bootlegger, he was a Smithsonian Institution scientist who studied mosquitoes and butterflies.

SHEIR

13:26:41
Like an entomologist?

BENDER

13:26:43
Entomologist, yep. And he had lived right near where the tunnels were. And he told one of the newspapers that, like, how other men go play golf, he likes to dig tunnels.

SHEIR

13:26:56
So it's just hobby, recreation?

BENDER

13:26:57
Just recreation.

SHEIR

13:27:00
What was his name, by the way?

BENDER

13:27:01
Harrison G. Dyer, Jr. And, you know, when I first read this, I thought, this man has to be lying. I mean, the tunnels are extensive and some of them go, I think, 36 feet down. There's multiple levels.

SHEIR

13:27:13
I guess they have -- they've got the enameled brick paving.

BENDER

13:27:16
Brick, right. And how do you get rid of that dirt? Like, where do you put that dirt?

SHEIR

13:27:20
How do your neighbors not notice what you're doing?

BENDER

13:27:22
Right. Right, exactly. But it turns out, in 1916, when he stopped building the tunnels, he had actually moved to California. And then, when he came back, he moved right on the Mall on Southwest where the Hirshhorn is now. He had a house and he dug tunnels there too. Those, apparently, were not as extensive, but there's reports of government officials going down into those tunnels as well.

BENDER

13:27:48
So we know that they existed. Then when you actually do even more research, the story gets stranger, if that's possible. It turns out Harrison G. Dyer Jr. had two wives.

SHEIR

13:28:02
At the same time?

BENDER

13:28:03
At the same time.

SHEIR

13:28:03
Okay.

BENDER

13:28:05
And the woman that he lived with and was married to near DuPont Circle is a different wife than he lived with and was married to when he lived in Southwest. And I think that it makes the story more bizarre, but it's also a little bit potentially relevant to the idea of the tunnels because he dug the tunnels in 1906 to 1915, near DuPont Circle. He secretly married the second wife in 1906 and divorced the first wife in 1915. So I wonder if it was, like, his little love nest down there.

SHEIR

13:28:43
Now, there's one thing we haven't explained. He built the tunnels near where we're standing right now between 1906 and 1915, but you said, when the tunnels were discovered, there were newspapers, German language newspapers from 1917, how did those get there?

BENDER

13:28:57
Well, we don't know. And neither did he, according to the articles.

SHEIR

13:29:02
Really.

BENDER

13:29:02
Yeah. He said he was very surprised, but he'd built buildings over the entrances to the tunnels, like little shack-like little houses. So other people must've found that they existed. It's very strange.

SHEIR

13:29:16
And what's the status of the tunnels now? I'm assuming they are not accessible.

BENDER

13:29:21
Well, I haven't really explored that. But I have seen articles and reports saying that the ones on P Street have been cemented over. Also a strange side fact is, when the U.S.D.A., who he had been working for, found out that he was bigamist, they fired him. There is so much information. It's never ending. The Smithsonian has his papers. And I feel like I could write a book on it. I mean, it's crazy.

SHEIR

13:29:48
You should write a book and then a screenplay.

BENDER

13:29:50
Yes. And who will play Harrison G. Dyer?

SHEIR

13:29:52
How about, like, Geoffrey Rush, some guy who's kind of good at being a little off.

BENDER

13:29:55
Yeah, a little eccentric.

SHEIR

13:29:56
Yeah. Well, Kim, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

BENDER

13:30:02
(unintelligible) ...

SHEIR

13:30:02
This has been bizarre and wonderful.

BENDER

13:30:05
Yes and I really enjoyed talking to you.

SHEIR

13:30:07
When you write the book, let us know.

BENDER

13:30:09
Okay.

SHEIR

13:30:11
Kim Bender authors the blog, The Location. To read her full article on Harrison G. Dyer Jr. and his tunnels, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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