Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

The D.C. Underground Atlas

Interesting map/GIS project




The D.C. Underground Atlas

Underground passageways are a recurring plot device in fictional stories set around Washington. Something about tunnels and the government appeals to the sense of curiosity in a way that surpasses bridges, highways, or any other category of infrastructure. Talk of tunnels can be found throughout the history of Washington, going back to the War of 1812, when British redcoats torched the White House and Dolly Madison was rumored to have escaped through a secret passage leading to the Octagon House. In more recent years, Nicholas Cage and Dan Brown further muddied the waters by prominently featuring make-believe tunnels as plot points in their fictional thrillers.

But who has time for fictional tunnels when the real world has so many fascinating underground spaces to offer? As many people who work in downtown D.C. can tell you, the federal government’s taste in architecture and engineering really does have a special proclivity for tunnels of all shapes and sizes. Contributing factors include the city’s unique building height limit, swampy weather, and the security concerns of recent decades. As a result Washington sits atop an interconnected matrix of transportation, utility, and pedestrian tunnels extending three dimensionally beneath city streets.

Residents navigate the tubes like human submarines, and rely on their services for basic needs like drinking water and central heat. Given their importance to daily life in the nation’s capital, it’s surprising to find that the full picture of Washington’s various tunnels remains unpainted. This project aims to complete that picture.

Tunnels in Washington run the gamut: from mundane to idiosyncratic, from heavily trafficked to the little known. Some tunnels are cavernous. WMATA’s standard issue 600-foot long Metro station could easily fit the Washington Monument laid down on its side, and anyone with a SmarTrip card is allowed to walk in. Others are claustrophobic with searing temperatures and the stench of human waste. Access to the General Service Administration’s steam tunnels is limited to a small gang of maintenance men and law enforcement officers. Just because many of the city’s tunnels are closed to the public doesn’t mean that you can’t read about the amazing underground engineering and architectural systems that were paid for with our tax dollars.

The following atlas attempts to map Washington’s underground tubing in several parts. The cartographic side of this project is heavily based on historical open source maps, and the human dimension is colored in with the D.C. Library newspaper archive. In order to limit the scope of the project, “tunnels” are defined as fully walkable passageways – no sewer pipes, culverts, or crawlspaces. All the tunnels depicted can accommodate standing adults – assuming they have proper access credentials.

You can explore the subparts below in any order, but might want to start with the maps for an overview. (The maps look much better on desktop rather than mobile.)


Copyright Elliot Carter. All Rights Reserved.




House-Capitol tunnel may get moving walk. Washington, D.C., Feb. 3. Footsore Congressmen may find succor in their journey from the House office building to the Capitol by proposed installation of a ‘moving side-walk’. President Roosevelt made the supplemental request for $200,000 in an appropriation bill sent to the House Wednesday. David Lynn, Capitol Architect made a similar proposal last year. A rail subway between the two offices has been decided to be impractical because of the heavy traffic between House office buildings and the Capitol, 2-3-39

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This entry was posted on July 18, 2018 by in GIS, Infrastructure, Mapping, Maps, Storymaps, Tunnels.
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