Exhibit marks 100 years with the Capitol subway

For proof, take a look at the Senate Subway exhibit, housed in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, where photograph and historic vehicle trace the evolution of subterranean congressional travel over the past 100 years.

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A black-and-white photo hangs on the basement wall, showing six dapper-looking gentlemen, outfitted in top hats, suit jackets and bowties, crammed into one of two original Studebaker coaches.

The men look a little too close for comfort as it is, but the coaches, endearingly known as Tommy and Peg, were built to hold up to 10 passengers.

The cars made their debut in 1909, when the Russell building opened, according to Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie. The battery-powered duo ran across an underground concrete passageway that is now home to offices, Ritchie said.

A pair of steps boosted passengers into the coaches, where they had a choice of four benches on which to sit. (All benches faced each other, eliminating any chance of privacy on the two-minute ride to the Capitol.)

Though short, the trips were often perilous, Ritchie said. The underground tunnel was too narrow for the vehicles to turn around and, without a track to run on, collisions were always a possibility.

“It was not an easy task, and people didn’t think it was going to last as a system,” Ritchie said. “One of the drivers was essentially backing up each time, so it wasn’t the safest system.”

The problem was solved in 1912 when the double-line electric monorail system was installed. It glided along a track with the help of a ceiling attachment.

One of the original monorail cars stands in the Russell basement today, in front of the picture of the Studebaker. (No word on whether the monorail cars had pet names, too.)

A velvet rope prevents onlookers from testing out the car, which is black with tan and red piping winding along its curves. But it’s easy to see that rides on the monorail, which was used until 1961, were less luxurious than today.

A placard on the car claims that up to 18 passengers could sit on the car’s six slim wicker benches. But luckily for passengers, trips took only 45 seconds, quickly ending any discomfort.

In the middle is the driver’s compartment, where a rail operator would sit on a stool, bookended by panels of levers and controls.

The front seats were reserved for senators, same as today, according to the Senate Historical Office, though Senate curator Diane Skvarla noted that even now, the rule often goes unnoticed.

“Sometimes visitors don’t know they’re not supposed to sit in the front car,” Skvarla said. “There are certain unwritten rules around here that everybody knows about.”

No matter how far technology goes, it seems, some things never change.

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