By Elliot Carter
Most people who work on The Hill don’t know about the 100-year-old book conveyor tunnel underneath them that used to connect the building to the Library of Congress. It’s long since abandoned, but it’s still down there.
Before the Jefferson Building was finished in 1897, books had been kept in the Capitol itself, and members of Congress were accustomed to the convenience of having reference materials right at their fingertips. As the 1901 book 30 Years in Washington (text here) explains, “when Congress is in session, members are constantly drawing books for immediate use in debate and in committee work.”
A key selling point for the new library was the quarter-mile long underground book tunnel linking the two buildings. A state of the art conveyor system ran the length and could whisk books back and forth at 600 feet per minute.
Designed by the Miles Pneumatic Tube Company in Boston, the electric “book conveying apparatus” pulled large trays in an endless loop along a rail system set into the wall. As the trays approached the Capitol’s basement, they traveled up three stories into a small receiving room near the House floor.
With the book tunnel, “a Congressman can get the volumes he desires in less time than it would have taken him when the Library occupied its old quarters in the Capitol itself. If in the midst of a speech it occurs to a Senator that he needs a certain book or the file of a certain newspaper, he has but to call a page, whisper his wish, and before he has delivered many more sentences, the page returns with the book or file.”
The book tunnel proved a big success, and historical sources amusingly noted that the system could be “noiseless” and “capable of containing the largest volumes.” The tunnel, reassuringly, was “perfectly dry.”
Based on the blueprints and map above, the book conveying apparatus appears to enter the Capitol at the Subbasement level, and travel up two stories to a room on the east side of Statuary Hall.
The National Geographic photograph below shows the Capitol recieving station in 1950.
A similar book tunnel was built in the 1930's and connects to the Supreme Court. Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center destroyed a portion of the Capitol-Library tunnel, but the Library section is probably still sealed up down there.
Capitol Hill has lots of weird legacy systems like this. Historical preservation multiplied by bureaucratic inertia dictates that even when a piece of technology is abandoned, it is never fully removed.
The House of Representative offices all still have mail chutes built into the walls (now sealed up), and the room under the Senate that used to house marble bathtubs now doubles as a boiler room. The Capitol still has its rows of telephone booths, but without the telephones, and the book tunnel room in the Library is now full of servers.