For more than a century, a tunnel ran between the Capitol and the Library of Congress to what is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building. Using iron rails, electricity, and an endless cable, the underground shaft automatically shuttled books to Members of Congress. “There is nothing like it in this country or, so far as known, in any other,” the Washington Post told readers in 1895.
After Washington became the nation’s capital in 1800, the government established a library in the Capitol. Originally called the Congressional Library, the repository was later known as the Library of Congress and remained distinct from the House Library.
Members of Congress frequently needed information on the fly, so the Congressional Library’s proximity proved handy. Representatives and Senators could send Pages on a quick errand to gather any data required. But as it acquired more and more books, the library grew precariously overcrowded.
To accommodate the library’s groaning bookshelves, architects designed an ornate new building across First Street. Although extra space was essential for the collection, Members of Congress grew concerned that moving the library out of the Capitol, even just across the street, would delay the delivery of essential information—so they requested a tunnel “with suitable conveying apparatus for the rapid transmission of books, papers, and messages at all times” between the Capitol and the new library.
Six feet high and four feet wide, the arched subway ran nearly a quarter of a mile. It contained not only a transportation system for books, but also telephone wires and pneumatic tubes. Unlike a typical subway, the rails ran along a tunnel wall, rather than the floor. Intended only for books and other communications, not pedestrians, the passage could fit a worker if repairs were needed. From the opening of the Library of Congress building in 1897, the subterranean system served the House, Senate, and Supreme Court (which met in the Capitol until 1935). Electric lights lit up the tunnel when Congress or the Court was in session.
When a question arose, a Member telephoned or sent a message via pneumatic tube to a librarian at the main reading room of the Library of Congress. Library staff fetched the book from the shelves and transported it to a subway terminal under the reference desk. There, the library staffer slipped the text into a protective case, loaded it into an iron holder suspended from the rail, and pushed a button. Powered by an electric dynamo, or generator, the button kicked the cable into motion. The cable pulled the books, documents, and messages through the passageway like a cable car.
Not all Representatives agreed on the tunnel’s speed and usefulness. In 1900, three years after the Congressional Library moved, the House and Senate considered what to do with the free space in the Capitol. During a lengthy debate on the House Floor, Members considered the idea of turning the former library space into . . . a library. The proposed new reference library would serve the immediate needs of Congress—even though the Library of Congress was just across the street, and a tunnel had been built especially to shuttle books quickly to the Capitol.
For Joseph Cannon of Illinois, the book tunnel lacked the personal touch of a reference librarian. “Now, I might sit down and make my memorandum and send it speeding through the tunnel to some gentleman clerk at the other end of the tunnel that I have never seen. He finds something that he suspects will answer my query, and back it comes through the tunnel. It is not what I want at all.” Cannon preferred a face-to-face encounter with a librarian who would easily find the exact book and page he needed.
Amos Cummings, a New York Representative, cluelessly asked whether the proposed new reference library would be connected to the Library of Congress “by means of a pneumatic tube, so that, by visiting the old library, within four or five minutes we could have any book that we felt disposed to order as we did when the Congressional Library was in the old place?”
Members argued about how long it took to request a book via pneumatic tube and then receive it through the book railroad. Satisfied with the current tunnel, Tennessee Representative James Richardson argued that any book could be brought from the library in about seven minutes. But no, others argued, sometimes it could take a half-hour.
Meanwhile, William Moody of Massachusetts tried an experiment, asking the library to deliver Henry Adams’s History of the United States, Volume II, to the House Chamber. After 25 minutes of silence, he received a reply that the book was already checked out. Later that year, Congress authorized the use of part of the old Congressional Library space as a reference library.
At the Capitol, the book railroad originally terminated in a room near Statuary Hall. This miniscule “cubbyhole,” as the Sunday Star Magazine described it, was called “Library of Congress–Capitol Station.” The “irregularly shaped nook . . . is stacked with books from floor to ceiling—solid walls of reading matter except for a 2 by 3-foot door at desk level which opens on the station’s transportation system.” A librarian assisted with congressional questions and managed book deliveries at Capitol Station, which later relocated to the basement.
A photograph shows Maryland Representative John Philip Hill and librarian Harold S. Lincoln in front of the book tunnel’s Capitol terminal. Hill handles a batch of new arrivals. With two books tucked under his arm, he inspects another spine, likely reading its title to ensure the correct volume had arrived. At Hill’s left, the librarian also scrutinizes a tome. Wearing glasses, a sober expression, and a dotted tie in this 1924 image, Lincoln oversaw the Library of Congress–Capitol Station for four decades. The photo’s caption explains that the “book subway” zipped the volumes over from the library. “Any request for a book in the Capitol is speedily complied with by this automatic handling device.”
The subterranean technological marvel no longer shuttles volumes from the Jefferson Building to the Capitol. The subway was demolished during construction of the Capitol Visitor Center in the early 2000s, more than a century after the tunnel was built. A pedestrian tunnel, accessible to visitors, now connects the buildings.
For more about Capitol Hill tunnels, read Notes from Underground, Part II: The Rayburn Subway.
Sources: Building for the Library of Congress, 28 Stat 372 (1894); Joint Resolution Relating to the Use of the Rooms Lately Occupied by the Congressional Library in the Capitol, 31 Stat. 719 (1900); Thomas Lincoln Casey, Annual Report on Construction of Building for Library of Congress, 1894, 53rd Cong., 3rd sess., H. Misc. Doc. 4; Congressional Directory, 55th Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898): 203; Congressional Directory, 105th Cong. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1997): 546-7; Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (8 January 1900): 686-690; Boston Globe, 17 August 1895; Evening Star, 16 February 1913, 3 February 1929; Sunday Star Magazine, 17 March 1957; Washington Post, 13 September 1895, 9 October 2018; “Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/construction-capitol-visitor-center; “History of the Library of Congress,” Library of Congress, accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.loc.gov/about/history-of-the-library/; “Old Supreme Court Chamber,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 20 March 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/old-supreme-court-chamber.Follow @USHouseHistory