21 May 2024

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: The “Crypts of the Capitol”

Stilson Hutchins

I return today to one of my favorite subjects: Weird corners of the Capitol. I am always intrigued to hear about more places in the Capitol that I have not yet been to. Even if they do not actually exist.

February 5, 1899 must have been pretty slow as far as news was concerned, because the Washington Times (published at the time by Stilson Hutchins) printed a lengthy article entitled “Gloomy Crypts Under the Capitol” that day.

Subtitled, “Legends Connected With the Subterranean Halls,” the article began:

Rome has its Sistine vaults, Paris its catacombs, London its Tower dungeons, and Washington its Capitol crypts. And not the least interesting of these are the Capitol crypts.

It goes on to explain that the crypts are located in the “fourth subcellar of the building” and describes them as follows:

After descending six or seven stone stairways, each damper and more chilly than the preceding one, the crypts are reached. These consist of a long row of arched vaults, black, gloomy, mysterious and unexplored. A string of narrow echoing corridors connects the crypts, and so intricate are the corridors in their windings and turns that they form a perfect maze and the visitor can lose himself within a very few minutes.

Plan of the basement level of the Capitol in 1900. (AOC)

Later in the article, there is some history of the place:

For many years the crypts were a famous visiting place for honeymoon parties, but the custom has gradually passed, and they are now closed except to special parties who obtain passes. The light of day has never entered the crypts since the foundation of the old Capitol was laid, nearly a century ago, and the place is now a mass of black mold. Some day when the crypts are lighted and explored many strange things may be brought to light and many legends destroyed, but now, as for a century, they shelter the fond spirits of the legislators who have passed away, and mayhap some shrewd stenographer may obtain some new light on the history before the ghost Congress is relegated to “innocuous desuetude.”

There is only one problem here. And that is that none of this exists except for in the overactive imagination of the reporter. While the Capitol does have a basement (confusingly located beneath the so-called crypt level) there is little under it other than the dirt and stones that constitute Capitol Hill. Two subbasements were built, but far from being “damp[] and chilly,” these were used by various committees, including House Committee on the Levees and Improvements of Mississippi River and the Senate Committee on Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. These were located on the west front, in the center section of the building. There was also – briefly – another subbasement (more on that in a future column) but this was not built until the 1950s expansion of the eastern front of the Capitol.

This did not stop our intrepid reporter from coming up with some elaborate and hairy ghost and horror tales that took place in this mythical place. We will look at some of those in future weeks.


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