Beneath city streets

By Andrea L. Chaffin

March 11, 2014

One of the only visible clues to the largely unknown myriad of tunnels beneath downtown Wilmington is a guardrail protecting traffic from the various access points.  

Below landmarks like the county courthouse and old jail, Buckley Bros., now-vacant Dairy Queen, Al’s Sweeper Service, Wilmington Public Library and the site of the now-razed Manhattan Lounge, among many others, are underground tunnels separating roadways from streams which once openly moved through the city.

The tops of the tunnels are actually bridges, all built at different times. The water comes from branches of nearby Lytle Creek.

Assistant Engineers Gary Smith and Tom Hodson, of the county engineer’s office, are two of three certified bridge inspectors in Clinton County. Joined by Craig Michaels of the city’s street department, the men spent Tuesday inspecting the majority of Wilmington’s underground tunnels and invited the News Journal along.

Workers wear tall, hip-high boots or waders into the tunnels due to the water reaching up to a few feet deep in places — especially in spots where the ground sinks below. The tunnels are pitch black, so each man carries a flashlight and wooden walking stick, following closely behind the man in front.

Among the rats, spiders, snakes, raccoons and trash in the tunnels was a 1930s car hood and vintage railroad and tile equipment, a sign of Wilmington’s industry throughout the 20th century.

One of the largest tunnels snakes three city-blocks-long below the courthouse. Workers entered the tunnel at its end — so that they’re walking upstream and can see through the murky water — behind The Escape Lounge on Sugartree Street. The tunnel darts below the intersection of South and Sugartree streets, moves under the courthouse lawn, curves left to continue between the courthouse and adjacent old jail, curves right toward the old Dairy Queen, goes across Walnut Street and ends behind Buckley Bros.

The part below the courthouse is believed to have been built when the courthouse was — about 1919. Old, square-shaped rebar marks the older part.

Above the tunnel between the courthouse and old jail is another tunnel which was reportedly used to transport prisoners.

Some of the bridges — like the one across from Kratzer’s Pharmacy on Spring Street, is probably from the 1800s. The arch is made from stone and mortar, and a historic decorative rail serves as a fence rail from the above sidewalk. Newer bridges, like one below Buckley Bros., were formed from poured concrete.

Just a few blocks away, another tunnel starts in the backyard of a home on West Birdsall Street, dives below North South Street, wraps around the library, and resurfaces on East Birdsall Street. Observers paying close attention may notice a line of darker grass near the bottom of the hill in Galvin Park, another clue to the story below.

Smith, who has been inspecting the tunnels and bridges for more than 30 years, said there have only been a handful of people below the surface. Workers inspect each bridge once per year, checking for structural damage such as deteriorating beams, concrete and wood planks.

The county inspects a total of 297 tunnels annually. All of the bridges below downtown received good ratings.

Andrea Chaffin can be reached at 937-382-2574 or on Twitter @AndeeWrites.