29 Jun 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: A New Senate Subway

I have looked at the original two systems that sped senators between their offices and the Capitol over the last two weeks. The monorail, which was not universally beloved, managed to remain in use for 40 years. In the end, it was not the noise that caused its demise, but the extension of the Senate office buildings.

It turned out to be a far more complicated replacement than simply tearing out the tracks and putting in new ones, mainly because of the greater distances that would have to be traversed. The decision was made to replace the monorail with a new car, that was still open, but much more like a subway car. Then, when the second office building opened (called the Dirksen building today) a second line was added.

At the same time, the Representatives on the other side of the Capitol began complaining that they were being left out. The argument that they had far more time to vote, so no need for speed, did not fly and, they, too, received a subway line of the same technology. They however only received one, presumably in the spirit of deference to their elders to the north.

Work for this began in 1955, but took some time to complete. In the meantime, the old trolley showed its age by catching on fire. According to the Post, “the fire apparently was caused by a spark from a wheel that ignited grease on the car’s undercarriage.” Fortunately, nobody was hurt, nor was any damage done to the trolley.

The new Senate subway (AOC)

In 1960, the first leg of the new subway opened with a short ceremony. This was an entirely new tunnel that connected the new office building with the Capitol. Since the new terminal on the Capitol end was not done yet, riders had to walk the last few feet. Nonetheless, J. George Stewart, architect of the Capitol and pictured above, presided over some remarks by the Chaplain of the Senate and other worthies.

Not everyone was a fan of the new system, mainly because it was still open-topped, which meant – according to rumor – that it had a habit of distressing the hair of female senators. This rumor was shot down when someone pointed out that, eventually, the subway was indeed replaced – and given the reluctance with which the senate did anything for its female members, they certainly did not do this just because of some bad hair days. In fact, it was likelier that a replacement was looked for to keep certain male senators from losing all of their hair.

It was generally agreed, however, that it was not the smoothest ride a 1994 article in the Washington Post the subway was known for their propensity to “shake, rattle and roll.”

The system was again extended when, in 1981, the third office building – today the Hart building – was opened. This compounded the problem, as now it was almost 1/3 of a mile that the system had to cover, a trip that took some 90 seconds, and meant that it could be some four to six minutes that senators might have to wait for their next conveyance.

This was, of course, out of the question, and so in 1984, discussions began on, once again on how to improve matters.

Next week: Improving matters.

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