“Welcome to the Georgetown Mole Way station,” Joe said, clicking on a large flashlight.
The light illuminated a cathedral-like space. The walls were covered in light green tile and inset every 20 feet or so with wooden benches. A wrought-iron railing ran along the platform’s edge, interrupted at regular intervals with sliding gates. Above an ornate booth was an enameled metal sign reading “TICKETS.”
“Pretty cool, huh?” said Joe, who works for the District cleaning the lenses on speed cameras.
It was unbelievable: a crumbling, disused subway station hidden beneath busy city streets.
Construction started in 1865, just as the end of the Civil War unleashed a wave of cheap labor. Otto Witzmann, a German-born armaments manufacturer made wealthy by the recent conflict, gambled that Washington would continue to grow in size and that its residents would welcome what he called a “modern” way to travel, “free from the indignities of the common street: panhandlers, mad dogs, temperance bores, street preachers, newsboys, traffic clots, slop buckets, inclement weather and the pungent droppings of cart horses.”
An ad in the Washington Panopticon newspaper sought investors: “OFFERED — An opportunity for Men of vision to join an Endeavor sure to Revolutionize travel in the District of Columbia and the County of Washington.”
Witzmann called it the Mole Way.
“The mole wasn’t held in such low esteem then,” Joe said. “Far from being seen as destructive, the mole was considered a clever, resourceful animal that could enter the earth at one point and pop up at another.”
The first 13 stations opened on April 1, 1870, and included stops near the Capitol, the White House, each of the city’s markets and an adults-only nude beach near the Tidal Basin. Also among the first stations: the one Joe and I were in, right under the intersection of Wisconsin and M Streets NW.
“I thought impenetrable bedrock made it impossible to build a Metro station in Georgetown,” I said.
Joe smiled. “Georgetown was a bustling, vital neighborhood back then,” he said. “Can you imagine anyone building a subway system in D.C. and not including a stop here?”
By 1873, 74 more stations had opened, for a total of 87, one more than the current Metro system. There was a stop at what was then called Tyson’s Farm in Fairfax County and another at a hot-air balloon depot near Sterling.
Joe and his secretive band of spelunkers have spent years mapping the Mole Way — or at least those parts that haven’t been destroyed by modern construction. About a third of it remains, its access points closely guarded secrets.