Zeroing in on Mystery of an Old Site Called Hades
For decades, affluent families have flocked to Spring Valley, a quiet neighborhood hugging the northwestern boundary of the nation’s capital. True to its name, magnolias are blooming and daffodils carpet the yards.
But during World War I, soldiers called it Death Valley. It was here that the Army cooked up chemical weapons, launched poison-packed mortar shells and sent gas clouds billowing over the fields.
When the war ended, soldiers buried the fearsome chemicals and munitions in pits that the Army forgot existed.
Now, the cleanup of what was known as the American University Experiment Station is nearing a crucial point. This spring, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to tear down a house that may be atop a lost burial pit that an Army sergeant called “Hades” in a grainy 1918 photograph.
That photograph, unearthed about 75 years after the soldier paused beside mustard gas canisters destined for burial, has provided the surest clue to the pit’s location, which has been one of the most elusive mysteries in the nearly 20-year cleanup. If it leads to the right spot, it will have solved an enduring puzzle and hastened the end of one of the nation’s costliest cleanups of a former military site.
In the past, relations between the Army and residents have been fraught with distrust. Some in the area believe that chemicals in the soil have sickened residents; others scoff at those assertions. A few remain unconvinced that the pit is even in the spot where the corps is looking. Many simply want to end a troubling and disruptive episode.
“I think the whole neighborhood would be pleased if the whole thing would be considered over,” said Janet Bohlen, 82, who described how the Army dug up a mortar shell and arsenic-tainted soil from her property. “Whether it will ever be considered over, I don’t know.”
Thousands of contaminated military sites dot the nation, but Spring Valley stands apart. It is the sole chemical weapons site that was developed into a neighborhood, and its prestigious residents have included at least three former presidents.
Now a coveted residential ZIP code, the area in Northwest Washington was briefly a center of chemical warfare research, a frantic response to Germany’s weapons. Some historians liken it to the Manhattan Project.
American University, which had bought hundreds of acres of land for a new campus, leased the property to the government when the United States entered the war in 1917, as did nearby property owners.
In the hastily erected research village, chemists raced to find lethal chemicals to unleash on the Germans. They tested protective masks, gloves and clothing. They experimented with flamethrowers and toxic smoke-spewing candles. They tested on dogs, rabbits and other animals, as well as humans.