Archive for Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Origin of tunnels still unknown

June 26, 2002

Exactly what two tunnels discovered underneath downtown Bonner Springs were built for so far remains a mystery.

What the stone tunnels were used for has been the subject of much discussion since some suggested they might be part of the Underground Railroad, a network of people, tunnels and paths used by slaves before and after the Civil War in their efforts to escape slavery.

Some believe it's possible the slaves' path to freedom led through Bonner Springs, although city officials have not yet been able to verify whether the tunnels were once part of the Underground Railroad.

The tunnels are currently used for storm drainage, and city officials say it's possible that might be what they were originally built for, although the oldest known maps of the city sewer system do not show the existence of the tunnels.

It is also possible the tunnels were constructed as part of a bathhouse being built in the 1880s, which was started but never finished because the owner died before it could be completed. The bathhouse, which was to have taken advantage of mineral springs in the city, would have been filled with salt water from 100 feet underground, according to "The Natural History of Bonner Springs, Kansas," by Richard Deonier.

Connie Steele, who has seen the tunnels, said she isn't sure what to think of them at this point, although she is hopeful they might have some historical significance.

"I think it's pretty exciting, and I think Bonner certainly needs to investigate what they were for," Steele said. "Even if it wasn't the Underground Railroad, what was it?"

Steele said she believes Bonner Springs could have been a stopping point for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad, especially considering the city's location between the Quindaro ruins in Kansas City, Kan., and the city of Lawrence, both believed to have played a part in the network.

"It seems like a logical place," she said.

Judy Garrett, who has seen videotape of one of the tunnels, said the way the tunnels were built, using stones carefully cut to fit together without mortar, gives people an idea of when the tunnels might have been constructed.

"They think they're (at least) 100 years old because of the way the stones are laid together," Garrett said.

The first tunnel was discovered in 1996 or 1997 and runs from the railroad tracks underneath Kansas Highway 32 toward the H.C. Davis Company and ends near Heartland Auto Plaza.

That particular tunnel eventually opens into a 10- by 12-foot rectangular room, city officials said.

The first tunnel was once explored and the findings videotaped, but city officials say they have been unable to locate the tape recently.

Although that tape has not yet been found, a second tunnel discovered in May was recently explored by a few interested local residents, who made their own videotape of what they saw.

A sinkhole at Centennial Park, at the corner of Second and Cedar streets, led city workers investigating its cause to the discovery of the second tunnel, which runs from the railroad tracks to an area between Dairy Queen and Beverly Enterprises.

Workers found the tunnel when reviewing videotape taken by a robotic camera they had placed in one of the city's sewer lines.

How far the tunnels extend from one end to the other is not yet known. However, city officials have said the tunnels will be explored in the coming weeks to determine exactly where they begin and end.

Until then, speculation about why the tunnels were originally built will likely continue.

"Even if they are just a storm sewer, my lord, what an elaborate thing," said Connie Harrington, president of the Bonner Springs Historic Preservation Society

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