Matthew B. Gilmore
1.Tell us about the website.
The D.C. Underground Atlas is a digital project that explores all the different types of tunnels that can be found underneath District streets. It’s a blend of geography, historical research and storytelling that aims to illuminate some of the unseen systems that support daily life in the city. Everything from the Metro tunnels that get you to work, to the Aqueducts that fill your bathtub and the steam tunnels that warm your office. The website is built on a platform called “ArcGIS Storymaps” that was developed by the geo intelligence company Esri.
The first seeds of this project go back several years. After college I was working on Capitol Hill and I became fascinated with how the sprawling campus is knit together by different pedestrian tunnels. You can go all the way across Capitol Hill during a storm without coming above ground and getting wet. I was trying to conceptually map how everything fit together in three dimensional space, but none of the official maps I could find were accurately drawn to scale. That’s when I started doing primary source research at the Library of Congress pulling up historical maps that contained better detail.
Fictional thrillers and films sometimes use the trope of “secret government tunnels” as an easy way to inject some mystery into their stories. This has lead a lot of fair headed people to assume that tunnels in Washington DC are kind of a conspiracy theory. Well, the truth is that the federal government really does have a special proclivity for connecting their office buildings with underground passageways. It is a very real phenomenon!
There are no comparable digital projects that I have seen. Kate Ascher’s 2007 book “The Works” is a comparable project for New York City. I was shocked to find that nobody has written the definitive book about Washington D.C.’s invisible infrastructure.
Public affairs staff in Congress and various agencies were largely hostile to the project, and only reluctantly shared photographs of their tunnels. It took me months of back and forth with the General Services Administration, and a FOIA request, to get a handful of grainy photos of the steam tunnels that run for miles across D.C.
By far the most valuable resource for this project was the free newspaper archives at the D.C. Library. Most people don’t realize the scope and ease of use of the databases. They’ve been fully digitized from microfilm to a Boolean search engine, kind of like a historical Google. That was invaluable for this because tunnel construction in D.C. has always been covered by contemporary newspaper reporters, just as Silver Line maintenance is today. So even if the GSA in 2018 is reticent to discuss something like steam tunnels, you can just go and pull up the reams of articles from when they were built in the 1930s.
The D.C. Library also inherited the vast photo archives of the Washington Star when the paper went out of business. Modern residents have probably forgotten that before Watergate, the Star was the paper of record, and the Post was a scrappier publication. It would be great if the Star photo archive was digitized and searchable like the Library of Congress photo collections.
Anyone who’s curious about how the city’s built environment works, and how it came to be configured in that way.
I’ve been researching and writing about different D.C. history topics for the past 3 years or so. I used to run a blog, and I’ve contributed articles to publications like local Washingtonian, Slate, DCist, Greater Greater Washington, and others. I was born in Dupont Circle and raised in Bethesda, and D.C.’s rich history has always illuminated my urban experience. There are so many amazing stories and people rooted in the buildings and streets we walk past every day. After college I moved back to Dupont Circle, completing my circle.
It was just a creative outlet at first. As I was researching the project I found that the local community was also very interested in the topic of Washington’s tunnels, so I started thinking about more professional and elegant ways to package the information, hence the website.
I’m working on a book proposal and want to take this digital project into print!