Some urban myths live longer than the people who spread them. Columbus has a number of these questionable folk tales, but there’s one that’s really persistent.
The city’s downtown underground is a maze of tunnels dating back to pre-Civil War days, and these passages provided refuge to runaway slaves escaping their owners in the South.
I’ve heard that story or variations of it since I arrived in town in 1966. It was told to me by people who had been hearing it for years before my arrival.
Last week I received an email from a reader inquiring if it was, indeed, true. The answer is yes and no.
First of all, it should come as no surprise that there is an “underground downtown” in Columbus. Most of the downtown buildings have basements, some of which I would advise visitors to avoid. These were self-contained units, however, used primarily for storage.
The possibility that there were underground tunnels in the downtown for the Underground Railroad movement is highly unlikely.
For one thing, the Underground Railroad was so named not because the runaway slaves tunneled their way to safety but because the routes the slaves used, principally through Indiana and Ohio, were safe passages with stops along the way. Hoosier families gave them food and shelter as well as hiding them. Most were hidden in cellars, barns and closets.
One of the routes did run through Bartholomew County, and a number of Quaker families in the Azalia area offered their homes as way stations. Some might have been hidden in Columbus, but it’s doubtful that the downtown business district would have been used because of its visibility.
Aside from basements, there actually have been tunnels under downtown Columbus. The most noteworthy one was developed almost a century after the Civil War in the 1960s when the old Law Enforcement Building (jail) was erected on the courthouse lawn.
Since the jail was only a few feet from the courthouse, where prisoners had to be taken for arraignments and hearings, county officials decided the most secure route between the two buildings should be a tunnel. It was used for something like a quarter of a century, but it was filled in when the old building was demolished around 1989 after the jail was moved to its present Second Street location.
The other real downtown tunnel does, indeed, pose a mystery. It was discovered in 1983 during construction of the corporate headquarters complex of Cummins Inc., which covered the three-block expanse bordered by Fifth, Eighth, Jackson and Brown streets. The discovery was an accident that caught Harold Hatter by surprise.
“The crews were working on an area just south of the old Cerealine Building around where the pond is now located,” remembered the company’s former architectural design director last week. “All of the sudden one of our bulldozers started sinking into the ground. We hadn’t known there was anything under there, but when we began exploring we came across this arched passageway made of bricks that was about 15 feet wide and 35 feet long.”
Various stories have been offered as to what the passageway actually was. In a story printed in The Republic at the time, workers described finding several 10-by-15-foot stone tanks that they suggested might have been used for grain storage by the original Cerealine Co. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hatter has another theory. “I went down into that area and found a couple of old wine bottles that still had the original corks. No wine in the bottles, but I would bet that someone was using it as a wine basement.”
While there is a scarcity of actual tunnels in the downtown area, there have been a number of proposals to build some over the years.
Back in 1999 when the congregation at First Christian Church was exploring expansion opportunities, one of which would have called for the closing of Fourth Street to traffic, a downtown businessman proposed that a church parking area at Fourth and Franklin streets be used for construction of a building that would have been linked to the main building by a tunnel running under Fourth Street.
City officials shot that idea down.
In 2007, during a community forum seeking ideas for the new Commons, a resident proposed that a tunnel be put in place under Washington Street that would link the children’s playground to kidscommons, the children’s museum across the street.
That one didn’t get very far either.
And then there was the ambitious proposal that was put forth during planning for the new county jail in 1989. Since a tunnel had been in place between the courthouse and the old Law Enforcement Building, some folks thought that there should be a similar but much longer one between the courthouse and the new jail two blocks away.
County officials settled for the overland route.