Wow, what a lot of things are “underground”. Where to begin.
First I think of the London Underground. I lived in London for about 3 years and got very familiar with the underground system as well as the red double-decker buses. How well their mass transportation system works! We, like many Londoners, had no car, and it was rarely a problem. I compare this to our Metro in the Washington D.C. area which works, well, not so efficiently. Somehow the maintenance of the London system is done well, because there are rarely shut-downs, single-tracking, or closure of stations. Their oldest line, the Metropolitan, was opened while the US was in the midst of the Civil War, in 1863. It was a short line, but the beginning of a vast system of lines running every which way under the city for a total of 250 miles.
During WWII, many tube stations were used as air-raid shelters. The Central Line was even converted into a fighter aircraft factory that stretched for over two miles, with its own railway system. This was kept an official secret until the 1980s.
The Underground Railway employed a totally different kind of transportation, and took a lot more courage. Harriet Tubman is the best known “conductor”, making many dangerous trips taking slaves to the northern states as well as into Canada. Tens of thousands of African-Americans escaped with the help of both black and white abolitionists along various routes.
It doesn’t take an engineer to dig underground. Virtually every class in the animal kingdom, including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects, and rodents excavate.The burrows can range from a simple hole to a complex network of underground tunnels and chambers spanning hundreds and thousands of meters in length.
Here in the Nation’s Capital, a lot goes on underground besides the Metro. The most recent addition was the West Wing underground command center which was kept secret for a long time until public speculation grew so inventive, that Obama finally made the project public. In 1950, though, structural problems led to extensive renovation of the White House and President Eisenhower had to live in the Blair House for 3 years. Forward thinking engineers developed a plan to construct a massive underground secret network of tunnels and bunkers to provide the President and his staff the ability to quickly relocate during an emergency. As some older readers may recall, the fear of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind, and even home owners were building their own bomb shelters.
There are 75,000 square feet of tunnels and trolley stations used until about 1960 but now abandoned beneath Dupont Circle. After years of efforts, in April 2016, Dupont Underground opened an all-white installation made with 650,000 translucent plastic balls. The concept isn’t anything like a ball pit, but is an interactive building block system that sounds a lot like a life-size Lego world, where visitors can move around blocks and create their own shapes and spaces themselves.
A monorail system runs in a tunnel between the Capitol, and the Rayburn House Office Building, and the Dirksen and Russell Senate Office Buildings. The first section was opened in 1909, though the system is now automated.
Finally, if you see steam coming out of grates in the roads or park areas, it’s probably part of the vast underground heating system which begins at the The West Heating Plant situated at the northeast corner of 29th and K Streets, N.W. This replaces the old Central Heating Plant built in 1933. The steam is distributed through tunnels, many from the previous plant, to government buildings in the northwest quadrant of the District.
Finally, downtown restaurant diners were shocked some years ago when a malfunctioning underground electrical transformer caused dramatic explosions with smoke and flames shooting eight to 10 feet high and black smoke pouring from sidewalk grates and manholes. Old equipment was blamed for this and similar, perhaps less dramatic events.
There’s a lot going on underfoot.