Smithsonian Bug Expert By Day; Eccentric Tunnel Digger By Night

Rediscovery of the Harrison Dyar tunnels, 1924.  National Photo Company  image 

Rediscovery of the Harrison Dyar tunnels, 1924. National Photo Company image 

By Kimberly Bender

Workers made an unusual discovery in 1917 while working on the foundation for the luxurious Pelham Courts apartments in Dupont Circle:

"A mysterious subterranean tunnel built of brick, and 22 feet in circumference, was uncovered yesterday by workmen who are excavating for the new building being erected at 2115 P street northwest by Harry Wardman.

Oldest inhabitants in that section say they did not know of the existence of the passage. It is presumed that it was used by Union forces in the civil war or by English forces in the war of 1812. The passage is more than 100 feet long." - Washington Post 

With that quick newspaper blurb, a story was born and died, receiving no other attention at the time. There were more important things going on—only a month earlier, the U.S. had officially entered World War I, and the Selective Service Act was passed just the day before the article was published. The tunnel story quickly faded from the news.

Inside the tunnels. Library of Congress photo

Inside the tunnels. Library of Congress photo

But for a couple of days in 1924, when the war was over and life was calmer, the tunnels were uncovered again and "Washington was alive with stories of mystery, intrigue, romance, and adventure." (Post, 3/4/1942)

While driving behind Pelham Courts in mid-September of 1924, a truck's tires sank into the ground, revealing the entrance to a forgotten underground shaft. The manager and janitor of the building decided to explore, and called up some newspapermen to report.

"Descending through the opening made by the wheels of the truck, the searchers stood in a passageway high enough and broad enough for a man to walk with ease. The tunnel was perfectly constructed and an architect who viewed it said its proportions were correct. One of the most astounding features of the place was the fact that the walls were carefully, even artistically formed of white enameled brick, pronounced valuable by builders.

On the ceiling were pasted numerous copies of German newspapers dated during the summer of 1917 and 1918. Dimly seen in the feeble rays of the electric torches, it was possible to discern in the newspaper articles frequent references to submarine activities then employed by the imperial government of Germany. Cryptic signs and engravings in cipher defaced the papers to some extent.

Other German periodicals and scores of empty bottles were brought to light by the investigators." - Washington Post

Reports indicated that the tunnels were long and extensive—that they may have reached as far as Rock Creek Park. Some electric lighting was discovered inside. For days, wild theories abounded. Was it a Confederate soldier hideout?  A stop on the Underground Railroad?  A liquor depot for bootleggers? A counterfeiter's lair? Or maybe a secret laboratory for "Dr. Otto von Golph's" experiments?

Harrison Dyar. Washington Post photo

Harrison Dyar. Washington Post photo

None of the above.

The Smithsonian Institute's mosquito-expert entomologist, Harrison G. Dyar, let the public spectacle go on for a couple of days before admitting to city newspapers that he himself had dug the tunnels from about 1906 until 1916, at which time he moved away to California. Why? "I did it for exercise," he told the Washington Post, "Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There's nothing really mysterious about it." 

Dyar told the Washington Star that the urge started when he dug a flowerbed for his wife around 1906. "When I was down perhaps 6 or 7 feet, surrounded only by the damp brown walls of old Mother Earth, I was seized by an undeniable fancy to keep on going."

Sound implausible? Consider that Mr. Dyar's tunnels were not limited to the area surrounding the property he had owned at 1510 21st Street. When he moved to 804 B Street, SW (now Independence Ave.), his digging habit continued. There, his tunnels were equipped with electric lighting, stone stairways, and cement walls, and went as deep as 24 feet. 

Consider also that Mr. Dyar's eccentricities didn't end with his tunnel digging:

Midway through his career, Dyar encountered problems in his personal life that had serious effects on his professional life. His marriage to Zella Peabody ended in 1915 amid charges of bigamy, and he was dismissed from the USDA for conduct unbecoming a government employee. It became known that in 1906 Dyar, using the alias Wilfred Allen, had married Wellesca Pollock, an educator and ardent disciple of the Bahá'í faith. They had three sons, whom Dyar legally adopted after he and Allen married legally in 1921.

He became active in the Bahá'í faith, a movement that accepts the divine inspiration of all religions and seeks to reconcile science with religion. Dyar edited Reality, an independent Bahá'í journal, from 1922 until his death, but his unorthodox opinions, voiced in the magazine, were rejected by mainstream Bahá'ís. In Reality Dyar published a fascinating series of short stories replaying central themes in his life—including bigamy.

(For an even deeper look into the craziness of Dyar's personal life, check out this court case filed by his second wife, in which she attempts to divorce the fake husband created to hide her relationship with Dyar: Allen v. Allen, 193 P. 539 (1970).

Of course, Mr. Dyar's story doesn't explain all of the mysteries surrounding the tunnels. Where did the German newspapers dated from 1917 and 1918 come from? What about the liquor bottles? Mr. Dyar told the Post that he didn't know anything about those things, and that he was in California during those years.

Maybe during the early days of WWI, someone read the little news blurb about Harry Wardman's discovery, and bootleggers or German spies actually did move in for a while. Maybe strange old Mr. Dyar's weird life was really hiding a double life as a spy. He certainly had the ability to keep a secret.

The Pelham Courts of Dupont Circle are long gone, and the property now houses the Hotel Palomar. Apparently, the tunnels there have been sealed off in concrete.

The property where Mr. Dyar lived in SW now houses the FAA. There's no telling what they may have done to that labyrinth. 

Another version of this article appears on Greater Greater Washington; Creative Commons.