The Lydecker Tunnel Fiasco
By Elliot Carter
This is part two in a series of articles on DC’s water infrastructure. Check out part 1, The Origins of Washington’s Water Supply.
The original Washington Aqueduct was completed in 1864, but within a decade the District’s population had increased by 75% and it was clear that a larger system was necessary. One account writes that “the water supply was so low that it was difficult to keep the people of the city from tapping pipe lines to government buildings.”
In addition the quantity, low water pressure in taps was a problem for residents on Capitol Hill and northeast neighborhoods. The aqueduct was entirely gravity powered, so the pressure dropped as you traveled farther from the Dalecarlia Reservoir.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ solution was a new reservoir (later named for Sen. McMillan) high above the city near Howard University. The project ended up turning into a “monument of fraud” that dragged on for decades and came in millions of dollars over budget.
Most of the blame falls at the feet of project lead Major Garret Lydecker, who proposed and then spectacularly mismanaged a 4 mile long connecting tunnel to feed the reservoir.
The first problem was the tunnel itself - he didn’t have to use one. His predecessor Montgomery Meigs had built a cheap cut-and-cover surface conduit that crossed valleys inside aqueduct bridges. But Lydecker examined nearby wells and rock formations and became convinced that there was a sturdy layer of bedrock along the route, perfect for tunneling.
On October 18th, 1882 he reported to the Secretary of War that “There is no reasonable doubt that this tunnel can be carried through solid rock in a direct line between the terminal points; and under these circumstances, with the perfected machinery of the present day, its construction would become a simple piece of engineering work.” He predicted that the tunnel would cost about $53,000.
Lydecker’s plan counted on solid, hard rock. But diggers encountered softer stuff that was “entirely insecure and unsuitable for the purposes of carrying water.” This complication expanded the scope of work, because tunnel crews now had to carefully line the entire thing with a triple course of bricks to prevent a collapse.
By February 1886 Lydecker had run out of money and work stopped. Most of the tunnel had been excavated, but only a small stretch was lined properly. Over the next two years there was a reoccurring series of fresh congressional appropriations and missed deadlines on Lydecker’s part.
By 1888 Lydecker had racked up $2.2 million in bills, prompting exasperated members of the House Appropriations Committee to go down and inspect the tunnel. They were horrified to discover shoddy work on the part of the contractors responsible for the brickwork that endangered the whole project.
The process was supposed to go like this: a large passageway is blasted through the rock using dynamite. A smaller arched tunnel is built inside, and concrete is injected to fill the void between the brick and virgin rock.
The Washington Post describes the reality: “A committee of experts went through the tunnel and found that instead of a solid lining, thousands and thousands of feet of the tunnel contained nothing more than a brick arch, with spaces between the sides and the top of the arch and the original rock large enough to drive a coach through.”
Adding insult to injury, reporters later discovered that Lydecker was grossly overpaying for the work, locked in at a rate of $15 per cubic yard (the Washington Post wrote that “brick-work of a similar character is being done on the new reservoir at $9 per cubic yard”).
It was discovered in a subsequent Congressional inquiry that Lydecker’s inspectors were receiving bribes from the contractors to overlook the corner cutting. And The Post reported that “Lydecker, who should have given personal supervision to the work, had rarely or ever gone to the mouths of the shafts, let alone descended into the tunnel itself."
Lydecker received a court-martialed for his role in the fiasco and was banished to a posting in the Rocky Mountains. Congress was shellshocked by the experience and abandoned the nascent tunnel. Some whispered that perhaps a surface conduit was the solution after all.
Six years later nothing had been done and The Army Corps of Engineers started talking about revisiting the tunnel. Work resumed in 1898 and It was competently finished by 1901, costing an additional $800,000.
The project was bitterly known for decades afterwords as “Lydecker’s Tunnel.” It pipes water to this day from Georgetown to northeast DC.