When we look at the ground we tell ourselves we are seeing something solid, something reliable, something knowable.
And so when a truck broke through the earth near Dupont Circle in the last week of September 1924 — revealing a subterranean passage that stretched into the Stygian darkness — it must have seemed as if the very foundations of the city were questionable, terra incognita rather than terra firma.
Was this underground chamber a spontaneous sinkhole, the result of some geologic process? Or was the curious burrow the work of human hands?
The truck had been delivering supplies to a construction project at 21st and P streets NW, behind the Pelham Court Apartments. As the driver eased the vehicle into the alley, a wheel sank down to the axle. When the truck was pulled away, there was revealed an opening large enough for a man to climb down.
The walls of the hole were not soil. They were made of brick.
Word was sent to Bishop Hill, a partner in Moore & Hill, owners of the Pelham property. He rushed from his office on 17th Street NW and met Randolph Green, the apartment building’s janitor. Equipped with a flashlight, the pair eased themselves through the hole and dropped to a dirt floor below.
The beam from the light cut through the gloom and revealed walls of carefully laid brick that rose to an arched roof eight feet overhead. An ornamental row of glazed bricks stuck out near the top.
It was easy to walk through the tunnel — it was four feet wide — and they followed it 60 feet until it came to a vertical concrete slab that apparently had replaced a wooden door, the rusty hinges of which were still visible. They doubled back and came to another blockage. A separate passageway led down six brick steps to yet another tunnel. This had a trapdoor set in the floor that when lifted revealed an iron ladder leading into the darkness. Hill and Green decided against climbing down.
Meanwhile, aboveground, word had spread of the strange discovery and crowds were converging on the site. According to a reporter from The Post, “The alley leading to the plot of ground became jammed with automobiles of every description, frantically honking horns and sounding sirens as they endeavored to approach nearer the scene of interest.”
Soon hundreds of people swarmed the trampled earth. Other fissures had been found nearby, each apparently an entrance to the same subterranean labyrinth. Gawkers with pickaxes and shovels gouged at the soil. They weren’t sure what they were searching for, but they were determined to find it.
Entrepreneurs stalked the crowd too, charging from 50 cents to $6 to lead a tour of the underground attraction, which some said resembled a medieval catacomb. Authorities feared another collapse and, in short order, uniformed police officers had been assigned to guard each tunnel entrance.
Who had made the tunnels? And why? Theories swept through the crowd. Some people were convinced they were abandoned sewage tunnels, others that they were a bootlegger’s lair. (Prohibition was the law of the land.) German-language newspapers dating from 1917 had been found down there, suggesting that the cavern was used by the kaiser’s spies during the Great War.
Nonsense, someone said. Two houses on the property — 1510 and 1512 21st St. NW — were once occupied by brothers. “One was a bachelor,” a reporter for the Evening Star wrote, “the other the husband of a beautiful young woman.” The bride was in love with her brother-in-law, who dug the tunnels so they could meet for secret trysts.
Old-timers in the neighborhood fought to have their stories heard. These tunnels were not a mystery, they said. Seven years earlier a steam shovel used in the construction of the Pelham Court Apartments had revealed them. It had even been in the papers. Dyar is the man you want, they said. He used to own the land. He knows what the story is.
And so the reporters hurried to 804 B St. SW, just south of the Mall, to the house of Harrison G. Dyar, Smithsonian scientist and the country’s leading mosquito expert.
Yes, Dr. Dyar told the newspapermen. I can explain the tunnels.
But who could explain Dr. Dyar?
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This is the first installment in a 10-part series of columns about Harrison G. Dyar, one of Washington’s most unusual residents. Coming Monday: Meet Dr. Dyar.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly