What happened to Witzmann? Readers fill in the blanks.

John Kelly
Columnist April 1, 2013

By John Kelly

April Fool’s.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Those are two words I didn’t explicitly put together in my Monday column about “Washington’s first subway.” The tale of Otto Witzmann and his “Washington Mole Way” was, as most of the readers who e-mailed me realized, a prank.

Still, a few people e-mailed to ask how they could tour the remaining Mole Way stations. I think these were probably readers who were hustling out the door early on a Monday morning and hadn’t had their coffee.

April Fool’s columns are a long tradition at British newspapers, as I discovered when I spent a year there. This year, the Guardian had an April 1 story about Guardian Glasses, a device that, like Google Glasses, allow users to see a heads-up display showing all kinds of information. In the case of the liberal Guardian, its glasses keep readers from reading right-wing newspapers and quickly calculate whether the fresh fish you’re looking at is humanely caught.

Of course, you can’t believe half of what you see in a lot of British media anyway.

Probably the greatest example is the spoof the venerable BBC did in 1957, when its “Panorama” program broadcast a documentary on Italy’s spaghetti orchards. Black-and-white footage showed villagers harvesting the pasta from spaghetti trees.

For me, the Washington Mole Way combined many of my interests: the (real-life) subterranean exploits of tunnel-digger Harrison G. Dyar, Washington’s hidden stories and our own seemingly cursed Metro system.

And there really was a pneumatic subway — in New York City. It was built in 1869 as a demonstration of the technology and was referenced in “Ghostbusters II.”

Of course, just as there is no J Street in Washington, there was no Otto Witzmann. And yet several readers seemed to know even more about him than I did. Barnaby Roberts of Reedville, Va., was disappointed that I didn’t mention a figure named “Crazy Pete” Miller, who scammed riders of the Mole Way by collecting empty bottles, washing them out, sticking a cork in them and selling them to nervous riders as “emergency air supplies.”

Wrote Barnaby: “He was a familiar sight outside various stations. He gained his nickname ‘Crazy Pete’ when, having been arrested and charged with fraud, he predicted that one day people would pay more than a dollar for a small bottle of water. Needless to say, he was declared incompetent to stand trial.”

Washington’s Emil Skodon filled me in on what happened to Witzmann after he returned to Germany, writing that “even as an old man he never gave up hope of coming back to Washington and starting another public transit venture. After the Washington Nationals (also called Senators) won the 1924 World Series, he proposed a new rail system designed to feed into old Griffith Park, to handle the crowds expected to watch the World Champions defend their title during the 1925 season.”

But the authorities rejected his proposal. The 92-year-old Witzmann received the bad news in Germany while on his deathbed. According to his daughter, Eins April Witzmann, the old man’s last words were: “Those dummkopfs in Washington will never win the World Series again until they build a U-Bahn and S-Bahn with at least as many stations as my wunderbar Mole Way had!”

And so began the “curse of the Mole Man,” a curse that Emil thinks will be lifted this year when the new Silver Line stations open, besting the number of stations on the Washington Mole Way.

Davis J. Tomasin had an alternative history for Herr Witzmann: “[He] did indeed open a pickled herring factory, but it was his dealing in herring that gave genesis to his last and perhaps greatest endeavor: the Herring Run.”

According to Davis, Witzmann noted that herring all swim in the same direction, as if in a tunnel. “Intrigued, Witzmann’s imagination kicked in and he began to wonder if these ‘runs’ were not, in reality, a kind of underwater highway. It was at this moment that Witzmann had his brainstorm, his most brilliant idea ever: a tunnel constructed under the English Channel.”

Sadly, tragedy followed. “Needless to say the ensuing seven years not only resulted in the loss of Witzmann’s fortune but indeed his life under the most bizarre of circumstances: the fall of governments, the rise of Communism, the dash to freedom across the Arctic Circle to Detroit with young Princess Anastasia and the truth surrounding the mystery about the purchase of Babe Ruth from Boston to the NY Yankees by Col. Ruppert.

“Those were the days.”

Yes they were. We’ll never see their like again, not that we ever did.

kellyj@washpost.com

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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