The Maryland State House is known mostly from the top. The capitol dome marks the heart of Annapolis, and the building it sits on is where, for three months each year, lawmakers duke it out over legislation.
What most don’t know about is the underground hive that supports the work above.
Under the floors where lawmakers convene and the asphalt and dirt of the surrounding land, a team of workers connected by a tunnel system labor to keep legislators and Annapolis residents informed about the ongoings overhead. These tunnels are also how legislators slip between the State House and their offices — or to lunch — without being seen by protesters and common folk outside.
State House tour guide Patricia Harrison has been walking the tunnels for 20 years. In the three months of the year the General Assembly is in session, she’s part of a team that gives tours to 8,000 people. She handles the 4,000 people who take tours during the rest of the year mostly on her own.
Harrison’s tours are usually focused on parts of the State House where you can still see sunshine. The way the light hits the seal of Maryland mosaic through the green stain glass of the Tiffany dome in the Miller building is like nothing else, but neither are the tunnels underneath them.
If you’re visiting the State House during session, Harrison says you have a chance of wandering through the two tunnels. The other nine months of the year, they’re off limits.
These are not the dungeon-like dark and dingy hallways you might be imagining. Tourists are often surprised by the white-painted brick walls, the bright lights and the blue carpeting that total just under 167 yards in combined length, Harrison said.
“But,” she added, “it’s still a tunnel under the street.”
The 47-yard long tunnel from the State House to Legislative Services runs under State Circle. After it was finished in 1947, the tunnel also served as a fallout shelter. Shelter signs are still posted in the tunnel, but Harrison said it wouldn’t do much good in the case of a nuclear attack. It’s hard enough keeping the rain out of the tunnels, let alone radiation.
Another set of tunnels runs under College Avenue, 76 yards to the House and 38 yards to the Senate office buildings — as well as to the canteen and lawmakers’ gym.
When a staff member of a legislator fell about 10 years ago, the carpets and emergency phones were installed.
The tunnels also lead to the State House’s print shop, where every bill and virtually every sheet of paper in the legislative complex is produced — about 32 million sheets per year, even in the digital era. Plenty of people still want their hard copies, Harrison said.
During the legislative session, circular wooden tables spin, which helps employees to sort thousands of bills. The last session turned out 3,127. The 1,832 House bills are kept on shelves as baby blue sheets of paper, while the 1,269 Senate bills sit in off-white stacks.
Robin Spicknall has been underground helping print the sheets that make up every bill, handout, poster, stationery and publication in the State House since 1974. This coming session will be his last before retirement.
“(Paper copies are) something the public needs. Whether they want it or not is a different story,” Spicknall said. “We’ve got to be transparent … being out front is important.”
All publications, such as the 90-Day Report, the roster of legislators and list of committees and the Legislators Handbook Series, are free to the public.
If you take the tunnel under College Avenue you’ll find more employees working — sometimes among plastic sheets where the ceilings have leaked — in the State House Library.
These underground employees work to put together more publications and resource materials.
The library is open to the public, although there are no checking out privileges. There are books of clippings for lawmakers and citizens to research any topic, whether they want to draft a bill or write an essay. Employees compile local and national newspaper articles on topics like health care, security and politics so readers can get a comprehensive look of what’s going on. The library also houses a variety of hard newspaper copies for readers to explore.
This is also where someone with a disdain for paper or the Internet can view bills from 1975 to 2006 saved on microfilm. Bills from 2004 to 2007 are kept in CD form.
Like Spicknall, Harrison also is heading toward retirement. In December, she’ll leave the State House after two decades as a tour guide. She’s sad, she says, but it’s time for her to come up now.
Editor’s Note: One of Wendi Winters’ final assignments was a tour of the tunnels under the State House complex. She didn’t turn in the assignment before dying June 28 in an attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom. Photojournalist Joshua McKerrow, who was with Wendi on her tour, went back with Selene San Felice to finish the story.