A Century Old, Very Strange Metro Plan From The Washington Post


The image above was part of an intriguing but strange article published in the Washington Post in 1909. The 1,500 word piece laid out the vision for a subway very different from today's WMATA system. Instead of connecting the city center with suburban communities like the spokes on a wheel, this proposed subway was just a small loop that ran from Capitol Hill to the White House. 

Our modern WMATA system is designed for commuters, with stations located near residential and employment centers. This Washington Post proposal mainly served to connect the big government buildings downtown. It would have been useless if you were trying to get to work, but could have whisked you from Union Station to the Patent Office in luxury. 

In one aside, the Post offers that:

"[T]he common people might well be permitted to derive some of the advantages and benefits of its use, when those wearing togas and solemn visages do not tax the system to its utmost capacity."

It later clarifies that this public access will probably be limited to the summer months when Congress is in recess.

The proposed subway did have an interesting public-private partnership aspect. "If private corporations were to cooperate in the extension of the system one of the first steps naturally would be to install subway stations conveniently located for patrons of all the leading hotels of the city." The suggested list of stations included the Shoreham, Arlington, Willard, and Raleigh hotels. 

Inspiration for the subway came from the recently constructed tunnel system that connected the Capitol Building with the Russell Senate Office Building and the Cannon House Office Building. A primitive people-mover was installed in the Russell tunnel that ran on a rail set into the floor. 

The early senate subway.  architect of the capitol  photo

The early senate subway. architect of the capitol photo

The Washington Post saw the Russell subway as a nucleus that could be expanded "from the Senate Office Building to the Union Station, thence to Treasury corner, the White House, the State, War and Navy Building."

Unlike WMATA's massive standalone stations, the Russell subway was "a narrow gauge affair" that ran back and forth from one building to another. The "stations" were really just basement rooms. It is incredible to imagine how that system would look today if it had been scaled up.  

Here's the full list of proposed stations:

  • US Capitol
  • House Office Building (Cannon Building)
  • Library of Congress (Jefferson Building)
  • Senate Office Building (Russell Building)
  • Union Station
  • Government Printing Office (Government Publishing Office)
  • The Pension Bureau (National Building Museum)
  • District Courts Building
  • Patent Office Building (Portrait Gallery)
  • General Land Office
  • Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Geological Survey Offices
  • The Shoreham Hotel
  • Arlington Hotel
  • Treasury Building
  • White House
  • State, War and Navy Building (Eisenhower Executive Office Building)
  • Bureau of American Republics (Organization of American States)
  • Navy Department Annex
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art
  • New Willard Hotel
  • Municipal Building
  • Raleigh Hotel
  • Post Office Building (Trump International Hotel)
  • Center Market
  • National Museum (Arts & Industries Museum)
  • Smithsonian Grounds
  • Botanic Garden
  • Geodetic Survey and Marine Hospital Service

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