This is Part I of a series of three articles. Read Part II here.
Prior to World War II, there were even more commuter rail lines leading into DC than there are now. Most of them ended at Union Station, just like they do today. But in the 1940s a man named Waldo Schmitt proposed a commuter rail subway to bring workers closer to the center of downtown, and to connect rail lines from the east and west.
In February, we posted a map of a 1940s-era proposal to build several subways for streetcar lines in DC, similar to the streetcar subways that existed in Boston and Philadelphia. While this project made it the furthest toward actually being built, it was not the only proposed subway line for DC during World War II.
Schmitt, an acclaimed biologist specializing in decapod crustaceans (think crabs, lobsters, and shrimp) who worked at the National Museum, now the Smithsonian, became obsessed with the idea of building a better commuter rail in DC. He spent much of his adult life pushing his vision for a commuter rail loop line that would serve downtown Washington, and got surprisingly close to seeing it realized.
People flooded to DC during WWII, creating a lot of traffic
World War II led to a surge of new government jobs in Washington, and temporary office buildings were even built on the National Mall to accommodate additional workers. But the District's population was growing rapidly even before the war began. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs expanded the federal government and provided additional jobs, while opportunities for employment elsewhere became more limited.
Since only a relatively small fraction of the region’s population resided in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, workforce growth spiked mainly in the District itself.
Between 1932, when FDR was elected, and 1941, when the US entered the war, the District's population rose by nearly 50%, from 510,000 to 760,000. Two years later, the population had grown by another 20% to 900,000 people. This population swell led to overloaded buses and streetcars, as well as severe automobile congestion.
The suburban population also ballooned during this time, and those were the commuters that Schmitt primarily cared about.
A Smithsonian biologist's commuter rail beltline
In 1938, Schmitt wrote an article titled “Wake Up, Railroad: A solution to Washington's Traffic Problem or the Answer to the Commuter's Prayer” in the Washington Daily News. Schmitt's proposal, which he presented to the Takoma Park Citizens' Association in May of that year, involved building a commuter rail loop line serving downtown Washington. It was designed to solve the problem that Union Station was inconveniently far from the center of downtown.
Union Station was closer to the center of the business district in 1938 than it is today, as the main business district had not yet moved from southeast of the White House to northwest of it. However, it was still roughly a mile walk from the train station to downtown jobs, and many workers were employed in Federal offices near L'Enfant Plaza (a 1.5-mile walk away) and Foggy Bottom (a two-mile walk).
Schmitt wanted a tunnel built between the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks (which are today used by Virginia Railway Express) at 12th Street and Maryland Avenue SW and the B&O Railroad's Georgetown freight terminal at 30th Street and M Street NW. The latter was the southern end of the Georgetown Branch rail line that later became the Capital Crescent Trail and part of the Purple Line right-of-way after being abandoned in 1986.
An underground station at 12th Street and Constitution Avenue NW would serve downtown workers, with additional stations at L'Enfant Plaza and in Foggy Bottom. Including the Georgetown Branch would avoid the difficulties of building an underground terminal station and allow passenger stations in Bethesda and Chevy Chase to be built. If a full-length tunnel connecting to the Georgetown Branch would be too expensive, Schmitt suggested that a smaller (therefore cheaper) underground loop just south of Federal Triangle be used to turn trains around instead.
Schmitt's advocacy didn't convince Congress
Schmitt's beltline proposal was not just a one-off idea for him—it seems to have become a life-long obsession. Soon after publishing his article, he took a leave of absence from his job at the Smithsonian to write a number of articles on his proposal, and eventually testifying before Congressional committees on the matter.
By late 1941, he was also promoting an alternate version, which consisted of a rapid transit subway shuttle from 30th and M streets NW to 12th Street and Maryland Avenue SW, to connect commuter rail terminals at those locations.
He also suggested that if double-tracking the Georgetown Branch was too expensive, commuter trains could operate as a one-way loop, in reverse directions during the morning and evening rush hours.
In a showdown before the Senate District subcommittee on November 7, 1941, DC Director of Highways Herbert Whitehurst declared the beltline plan “thoroughly impractical,” based on the $5 million price tag (about $85 million today) and the need to electrify all commuter rail lines that would use the tunnel. He also argued that passengers had largely abandoned commuter rail services and that adding additional commuter trains would slow down freight and long-distance passenger rail through Washington. A 1941 survey, part of a highways report, showed that less than half a percent of federal workers downtown got to work by train.
Schmitt's showdown with Whitehurst seems to have been the end of serious Congressional consideration of the beltline proposal, but Whitehurst wasn't its only high-profile opponent. E.P. Merrill, the president of Capital Transit, which owned and operated the District's bus and streetcar service, also publicly opposed the proposal. It would have competed with his transit network.
Opposition to Metrorail
While Congress and the District commissioners went on to consider other options for improving transportation in the District, Schmitt seems to have remained convinced that his beltline proposal was the best public transportation option for Washington. In 1948 and 1949, he and a small group of advocates distributed surveys to passengers on B&O and Pennsylvania Railroad commuter trains, asking about interest in his proposal. He claimed that roughly 40% of commuters surveyed expressed interest in it.
He seems to have primarily been concerned with the interests of suburban commuters with a 9-5 workday, such as himself. He lived in Takoma Park, quite near the location of the present-day Takoma Metro station, which was then a B&O Railroad commuter station. It appears he only attempted to survey the interest of people who were already rail commuters, not the vast majority of those who drove or used surface transit. He also opposed streetcar subways that would have served denser portions of Washington, such as the mid-City, and more easily provided all-day service.
Starting with an article in the Washington Daily News in 1959 and continuing until the early 1970s, Schmitt became an outspoken opponent of the series of proposals for rapid transit subways that eventually lead to the construction of Metrorail.
He consistently argued that there was no difference between rapid transit and commuter rail. To Schmitt, it was more important to serve suburban commuters—who were a much larger fraction of the region's residents than they had been in 1941—than District residents. He also argued that building a new rapid transit system would be too expensive.
Schmitt published articles, spoke at neighborhood association meetings, and even wrote to every senator in opposition to the 1965 National Capital Transportation Agency subway plan, which later became Metrorail, suggesting his belt line plan as a cheaper alternative. Schmitt was not only opposed to transit alternatives to his commuter rail beltline idea—he was also involved in opposition to urban freeways in the District.
Schmitt's legacy today: Waldo's Wilds
Today, Schmitt's quixotic fight for a commuter rail subway under downtown Washington has largely been forgotten. Proposals for better commuter rail service focus on through-running from Maryland to Virginia and on improving midday and weekend service to make MARC and VRE more useful for people who aren't making 9-5 commutes to downtown DC. However, one small piece of his legacy still remains in the region in his longtime home of Takoma Park.
When Schmitt died in 1977, he donated his house to the city as a neighborhood park. But Takoma didn't have the funds to maintain it, so it transferred the park, known as “Waldo's Wilds,” to Montgomery County. His property—minus his house, which was demolished in 1990—is now the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Takoma Park South Neighborhood Park.
The Smithsonian archives hold Waldo Schmitt's papers, including several boxes of material relating to his involvement in matters related to public transportation in the Washington region. They are open to the public and just outside the Maryland Avenue entrance to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station.
Particular sources I consulted in writing this article include:
“Wake Up, Railroad. A solution to Washington's Traffic Problem or the Answer to the Commuter's Prayer,” Washington Daily News, February 28, 1938.
“Dr. Schmitt Urges Fast Trains to Lighten Suburban Traffic,” Washington Post page X13, May 21, 1938.
“D.C. Subway Plan Held 'Impractical': Sponsor of Belt-Line System Clashes with Whitehurst at House Hearing,” Washington Post page 13, November 8, 1941.
“How U.S. Employes [sic] Get To Their Work,” Washington Post page 6, April 25, 1941.
“After 21 Years, City Fathers 'Think Up' Dr. Schmitt's Plan,” Washington Daily News, 24 July 1959.