03 Jan 2022

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: The Lincoln Park to Garfield Park Tunnel

My love of tunnels continues unabated, but in keeping with my recent decision not to write about currently-used tunnels, I will now turn to…unbuilt tunnels! Yes, while researching the Native American canoe found on Capitol Hill, I discovered that the there were further plans to allow access for trains to and through the Hill.

The first inkling I had of this plan came in an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun and republished in the Washington Evening Critic on October 31, 1881. It described a whole series of tracks and tunnels that would crisscross the Hill, including an at-grade railroad up 8th Street to E, then down to Reservation 17 – Garfield Park. What they were thinking here is beyond me, as there was already the Virginia Avenue tunnel, which connected the same points without going down the middle of one of the busiest streets on Capitol Hill. It hardly fit their goal of making “the city streets within safe to citizen and stranger without incommoding the roadways from without.”

The most interesting tunnel, however, was described as follows:

It is proposed that the Baltimore & Ohio shall abandon all its present routes within the city limits, and, uniting its roads outside, enter at Boundary and Twelfth street east, and proceed southward by Twelfth street east southward on grade to Lincoln Square, then by a tunnel along North Carolina avenue to the point of junction at Reservation 17.

Translation: Boundary is Florida Avenue today, Twelfth Street east is now 12th NE, and Reservation 17 is Garfield Park.

As the B&O at the time had two lines into the city, one that entered at First and Boundary and one at 9th and Boundary, this was presumably an attempt to redirect traffic around and under the more heavily built-up sections of the city. In 1880, 12th street was still unpaved; only H street was paved with cobblestones. All others had, at best, gravel.

The Virginia Avenue tunnel being extended, ca. 1905. Note Capitol on far left (LOC)

The Washington Star reprinted a letter by Engineer Commissioner William J. Twining (that’s his father above – in spite of his high-profile job, no pictures of the younger man seem to exist) two months later, in which he restated the idea, though now the tunnel was to begin at 12th and Maryland Avenue and then turn under Lincoln Park to North Carolina Avenue, where it would proceed via “open cutting and beam tunnels at the several street crossings” to Garfield Park.

It did not sound much more appetizing than the current situation, and the idea seems to have been abandoned thereafter, possibly due to Twining’s death in 1882. Five years later, another plan foresaw an at-grade train line heading straight down 5th Street NE and SE to Seward Square and from there along North Carolina Avenue to a depot next to Garfield Park. This plan, thankfully, also went nowhere.

It was not until the early 20th century that the building of Union Station and the First Street Tunnel, and the lengthening of the Virginia Avenue tunnel did some of the consolidation that he been planned for in 1881. At the same time, the two lines north were made into one main trunk leading up Delaware Avenue, but no tunnels – the lines were instead raised above grade – were built for this, and this remains the status quo even today.


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