Monday, December 5, 2011

Huntington's Tunnels!

After so many, many questions, I thought it might be a good idea to transcribe an article on the tunnels in Huntington, lol.  This excellent article was written by Joseph Platania and appeared in the Spring 1996 edition of  Huntington Quarterly magazine.  This is probably the best source of information out there on this subject, which has been a controversy in the tri-state for many a year.  A copy of this edition can be found at the Cabell County Library.  At the end, I've supplemented with some additional information.

The Mystery of Tunnels in Huntington
by Joseph Platania

There is something inherently mysterious about a tunnel, or a passageway burrowed under the earth to connect two locations or to reach a specific point.  There were tunnels associated with the Underground Railroad during slavery times and the catacombs of the early Christians that were built underneath Rome.  Tunnels have been built through mountains and underneath rivers to carry railroad tracks and highways.  Tunnels have also been important in bootlegging and smuggling activities.

For years there have been rumors of the existence of tunnels underneath downtown Huntington.  The rumors say that there were tunnels connecting such prominent buildings as the Hotel Prichard with a private club across  Ninth Street, connecting the Frederick Hotel with the Keith-Albee and the Keith-Albee with the Cinema Theater.  There also was a rumor that the Coal Exchange Building was connected by a tunnel with the West Virginia Building two blocks away.

Former Huntington Main Street director Renee Maass says that a rumor that has been around for decades states that there were tunnels leading from the Ohio River into downtown.  Specifically, these tunnels connected with downtown vaudeville theaters and were used by performers to transport their props, baggage, and other equipment, including animals from riverboats to the theaters, says Maass.

But some of the most intriguing reasons given for the tunnels underneath Huntington include bootlegging, a secret courier service and a getaway route for members of the mafia who were here on business from Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The  rumor states that the underworld figures could hide out at a hotel or private club and then, if necessary, sneak out via an underground passageway.  And, one of the many other rumors maintains that the tunnels were used as a meeting place for city officials in case of an emergency or natural disaster.  But, the question remains, can any of these rumors be substantiated?

Derek Hyman, president of The Greater Huntington Theater Corporation, states that he has heard a rumor that there was a tunnel connecting his Keith-Albee and the Frederick Hotel in order to shuttle guest performers between the theater and the hotel.  This rumor is false, says Hyman, as is the rumor of a tunnel connecting the Keith with the Cinema Theater almost two blocks away on Fourth Avenue.  He adds that there are several tunnels underneath the Keith-Albee, bu they are for maintenance and delivery purposes and they end at the curb.  He has explored "both sides of the wall" at the ends of Keith-Albee's tunnels and underneath the Frederick and has found no evidence of any connecting underground passages.

William Ritter has also heard the rumor of a tunnel connecting the Hotel Frederick and the Keith-Albee as well as other tunnel rumors, but he believes there is nothing to them.

Huntington architect Keith Dean says that there are tunnels all over town that run underneath sidewalks, but usually end at the curb.

However, an anonymous source and lifelong resident of Huntington is convinced there was indeed a tunnel connecting the Keith-Albee with the Frederick, as well as many more passageways throughout the city.

"There are three reasons why the tunnels cannot be found today," says the anonymous source.  "The tunnels were either covered up deliberately, destroyed by the 1937 flood or used as the foundation for the city's sewer system."

Some have said that the tunnels would be difficult to construct because they would have to be dug through vast quantities of sand and gravel that a millennium ago were  deposited by the Ohio River.

But don't tell that to William A. "Buck" Thompson, retired vice president and manager of C.F. Reuschlein Jewelers.

In the early 1970s, because of urban renewal Reuschlein's had to move from its longtime Third Avenue location and the store purchased the Morgan Arcade at 825 Fourth Avenue.  According to Thompson, the building was remodeled by the Streater Division of Litton Industries.  During the remodeling, an entrance to a tunnel was discovered in the basement of the old arcade, says Thompson.  He adds that further exploration found that the tunnel went underneath the alley and up into a lower level of what now is the city annex building at 824 Fifth Avenue.  The three-story building now has some state offices and the city sanitary board as tenants.

Thompson states that the tunnel apparently connected the present city building with the arcade basement.  He recalls going into the tunnel and that it was approximately six feet high and was finished with some sort of wood or other material on the walls.  The tunnel was still open when they discovered it, says Thompson.  The site of the tunnel opening in Reuschlein's basement has since been covered with a wall.

Jim Morgan, owner of the Stadium Bookstore, recalls hearing about a tunnel.  His father, J. Hanley Morgan, purchased the building, then called the Lewis Arcade, in 1959 and it became the Morgan Arcade.

Morgan states that it is his understanding that during World War II, a tunnel connected the basement of the Lewis Arcade with the "sub-basement level" of the building at 824 Fifth Avenue that was then owned by the Polan family.

The tunnel was used for federal government operations during the war years, said Morgan, adding that there was "nothing clandestine going on there."

During the war years, the Fifth Avenue Arcade had offices of the Zenith Optical Co., that was owned by the Polan family and made precision instruments for the federal government and others.  In fact, the 1945 directory lists Zenith Optical as the building's only occupant.

A clue to the identity of the tunnel's builder came from an interview with Mrs. Dorothy Lewis Polan of Huntington.

Mrs. Polan states that she has never heard of a tunnel between the former Lewis Arcade and the present city annex building.  Her father, Walter H. Lewis, who died in 1970, was a well known Huntington businessman and real estate developer.  Sometime in the mid-to-late 1920s, he built both the Fifth Avenue Arcade and the Lewis Arcade "one after another," said Mrs. Polan.  She adds that he lost the Fifth Avenue Arcade to the bank after the 1929 stock market crash that started the Great Depression.

Mrs. Polan recalls that a tunnel was not put in the Lewis Arcade during the World War II era.  She adds that if there had been a tunnel then, "it would have been a topic of conversation."  But, Mrs. Polan states that during a recent conversation, Mrs. David Foard of  Foard-Harwood Shoes informed her that she had indeed heard about a tunnel in the Lewis Arcade.

 Another piece to the Lewis Arcade puzzle was provided by the Cohen family of Huntington.  For many years, Isador and Louis Cohen owned and operated the Citizen Loan Co., located on the second floor of the Lewis Arcade building.  Isador Cohen states that he came to Huntington in September 1929 to join his brother Louis in business, who had arrived seven years earlier.  According to Cohen, both the Fifth Avenue Arcade and the Lewis Arcade were standing at that time.  He adds that he had been in the building's basement many times, but had never seen or heard of a tunnel.

But later, Mr. Cohen told me that because of our conversation he had spoken with Charles Botts, brother of the deceased janitor at the Lewis Arcade, who believes there was a tunnel entrance in the basement.  Botts told Cohen that he had spent a lot of time with his brother in the basement and believes some sort of tunnel went from that building to one across the alley. 

With an eyewitness account and three persons who had stated they had heard about a tunnel in the Lewis Arcade, I thought my research had reached a dead end.  Then, thanks to an observant and helpful researcher, Nina Johnson in the local history room of the Cabell County Public Library, I acquired copies of microfilm of Huntington newspaper articles for late August and early September 1924.  Reading these articles, the story of a tunnel in the heart of Huntington's central business district began to emerge.

The August 27, 1924 Herald-Advertiser states that the Lewis Arcade, a ten-story building then under construction on Fifth Avenue just east of city hall, "will have the deepest and heaviest foundation of any building in the city," according to C. Harrison Smith, general contractor and D.G. Javins, superintendent in charge of the work.  The article adds that the foundation had been cut straight down to a depth of 30 feet.

Another article in the same edition of the newspaper reports that plans for the new building "will include an arcade connecting Fifth and Fourth Avenue."  The building would be connected with the part already completed on Fourth Avenue, "by means of two passageways, one over and one under the alley which separated the two buildings, says the article.

The Huntington Herald-Dispatch of September 3, 1924 reports that on the previous day, city commissioners granted four franchises that had been requested by Walter Lewis "in connection with the construction of his ten-story office building and arcade on Fifth Avenue near city hall."

According to the newspaper article, the franchises provided for the following projects:
(1) "Covering of a passageway across Court Street (4 1/2 alley) from the new Lewis building to the present Lewis Arcade on Fourth Avenue;
(2) "Boring of a tunnel underground between the two buildings;
(3) "Construction of an archway entrance to the arcade for the Fifth Avenue side, and;
(4) "Hanging of a marquee over the Fifth Avenue entrance to the building."

The article adds that the commissioners were unanimous in their belief that the new office building when complete "will be one of the handsomest in the city."

Franchise number two, which calls for the "boring of a tunnel underground between the two buildings" grabbed my attention.  The mysterious origin of the Lewis Arcade tunnel and its purpose had been solved.

Although a passageway across the alley and an archway entrance to the arcade from Fifth Avenue never were constructed, we now know from eyewitness accounts that a tunnel was indeed bored underground.

The builder of both arcades and the tunnel was Walter H. Lewis, Sr. A Huntington newspaper article published the day after his death on April 13, 1970 states that Lewis was born in Lithuania in 1885.  He came to the United States as a child and lived for several years in Texas before moving to Huntington in 1908, says the article.  It adds that Lewis established a chain of furniture stores in Huntington as well as in other West Virginia cities and in Ohio and Kentucky.  He also was well known as a Huntington financier and real estate developer.

At the time of his death, Lewis was chairman of the board of several real estate companies, Lewis Furniture Companies and Southern Wholesale Furniture, Co., says the newspaper account.  It adds that for many years he was active in "many community and philanthropic affairs."

With plans for a covered pedestrian walkway over a street and connecting two retail and office arcades as well as a pedestrian tunnel, Walter Lewis was a visionary in the field of retail marketing, anticipating the age of shopping centers and malls.

Coincidentally, another tunnel lies across the street from the former Lewis Arcade and near one of Huntington's busiest downtown thoroughfares.  Huntington photographer David Fattaleh recalls that some 25 years ago, when he was in high school, he and some of his friends would go inside the federal building at 502 Eighth Street and stop by the military recruiters' offices on the first floor.  They would then go downstairs to the basement and walk through a tunnel that came out inside the basement of the old post office building about a half a block to the east on Fifth Avenue.  He recalls that the tunnel had smooth, metallic-looking walls.  Fattaleh said that he and his friends were later told not to go downstairs in the federal building.

The General Services Administration is the agency responsible for constructing and maintaining all federal buildings.  A local GSA employee in the former post office building confirms that there is a tunnel that connects the basement of the federal building at 502 Eighth Street with the basement of the Sidney Christie Federal Building and Courthouse (formerly the post office) on Fifth Avenue.  She states that both are "secured buildings" with security guards, metal detectors, and security checks.  She adds that the tunnel is finished "with regular block walls."

Steve Wright, public affairs officer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offices at 502 Eighth Street, states that the tunnel "is for convenience sake" and, until recently, was not restricted to any particular government agency.  He explains that in bad weather and at other times, government employees from the former post office building, the federal court, the IRS and other agencies could walk through the tunnel and into the federal building on Eighth Street and use its snack bar.  He adds that the Corps of Engineers has an exercise and training room in the basement of the former post office building and the tunnel was used by employees to go back and forth.

For security reasons following the Oklahoma City bombing, use of the tunnel has been restricted for the past year by a system of electronic ID cards similar to ones used in other federal buildings, says Wright.  He adds that as a result of these security measures, only a few Corps of Engineers' employees now have access to the tunnel.

While discussing the subject, Wright revealed that there is a tunnel of sorts that goes underneath the railroad tracks on West Fifth Street in Huntington and connects West Seventh and West Eighth Avenues.  In the past, this tunnel was primarily used by employees of the former Owens-Brockway Glass Company plant on West Fifth Street as a pedestrian underpass to access a nearby parking lot.

And there is evidence of yet another tunnel in downtown Huntington, this one in the basement of the newly-opened BrewBakers Restaurant.

Lake Polan, III states that in 1922 his grandfather (Walter H. Lewis) acquired the Foster Building at Third Avenue and Ninth Street on a 99 year lease and it became the popular Huntington Dry Goods Store.  He adds that in the early 1960s while on a trip to New York City, Lewis observed how a basement was being put into an existing building.  After his return to Huntington, he put a basement into the Huntington Store building which was "quite an innovative thing to do," says Polan.  He adds that Lewis did it by "undercutting" the building, using mining techniques such as conveyor belts.  Polan states that there is a tunnel going out from the unfinished part of the basement of the former Huntington Store and in the direction of the Ohio River...

While all the rumors regarding tunnels underneath downtown Huntington cannot be accounted for, therea re other indications of how such stories may have started. 

Mr. William Newcomb was an officer of the former Anderson-Newcomb Department Store.  Now in his 90s, he is one of Huntington's senior historians.  He states in the city's early years, there were reservoirs located underneath Third Avenue and speculates that this may have given rise to rumors of tunnels in downtown.  He says that these reservoirs, build during the 1870s, held hundreds, or even thousands, of gallons of water drawn from the Ohio River.  He points out that in case of fire, water could be drawn from these storage containers and used to extinguish the blaze.

Mr. Newcomb explains that horse-drawn, water-tight wagons were driven into the river, filled to capacity and then emptied into the cisterns.  This was before the city had its own water system which was first built in the early 1890s, says Newcomb.  Before that time, city residents used cisterns to collect rain water or to store river water for washing clothes and irrigating gardens.  For drinking water, residents had private wells and there were public wells and pumps along Third Avenue, says Newcomb, adding that people used charcoal filters to try and purify the water and improve its taste.

Mr. Newcomb recalls that sometime in the late 1960s a part of the street at the intersection of Ninth Street and Third Avenue caved in.  It was discovered that the cause was the collapse of an old underground reservoir that had long ago been forgotten.  In regard to tunnel rumors, Mr. Newcomb states that when they laid the main sewers in downtown, some of them "were big enough to walk through."

Whether there are only a couple of passageways underneath downtown Huntington or an undiscovered intricate web of tunnels is today an unanswered question.  Whether they were developed for reservoirs, walkways or something more scandalous, such as bootlegging, may never be known.  However, one this is certain...everyone loves a mystery!

Theresa's Note:  Like many tri-state residents, I grew up hearing rumors about the tunnels in Huntington. As a freshman at Marshall University in the fall of 2001, this topic was as relevant as it was 20 years ago...and it was as relevant as it is today.  I was dating a guy who did some work with the Keith Albee theater, and told me of a massive tunnel system under that building, that led to the Frederick building across the street.  Apparently, the tunnel was not only used to shuffle early vaudeville performers who were staying at the hotel into the theater unnoticed, but it also served as an escape route during the days of Prohibition.  (On a side note, a story I would hear years later from one of my legal professors was that the Frederick building is the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa---it was noted that several large black limousines were seen pulling into the underground parking area, and that day, the pool was mysteriously concreted over.) 

Years later, as Historic Research Manager for HPIR, the subject of tunnels again came up...over and over.  Upon getting to actually investigate the Keith Albee theater, we did get to go down into the basement area.  The basement area is a maze of hallways and corridors and storage rooms.  It is and of itself, a tunnel system, so I'm not sure if people are confusing that with the tunnel system or not...but I do know if you take a wrong turn, you'll end up right in the middle of the entryway for an autism services office, hehe!

There is a doorway in the Keith Albee basement that could possibly lead to an outside tunnel, but flooding over the years in Huntington has made any entry impassable.  We also were told of a small tunnel that leads only to the edge of the sidewalk...its used for deliveries to the building.

It would not surprise me if there were tunnels under Huntington's downtown.  However, I agree with Newcomb in the article above, and believe that many were actually part of the old sewer system, and are today, either blocked over, or completely flooded, especially in part to the 1937 Flood.  And, after the attacks on September 11, 2001, the convenience tunnels located near federal or other government buildings are going to be completely off-limits.  It also would not surprise me if it was proven that opportunists used these once mundane tunnels for various nefarious activities, including moving bootleg liquor, organized crime, and potential escape routes during the Cold War scare.  Today, however, these tunnels are mostly inaccessible, should they still exist at all.

Moving on to Guyandotte...a lot of misinformation about tunnels being in Guyandotte is also floating around out there.  Guyandotte, predating Huntington by about 60 years, has tunnel rumors that largely concern a connection to the Underground Railroad.  While a union recruitment camp was set up in Guyandotte in 1861, the majority of the town was of Confederate sympathies.  Unfortunately, none of the tunnel rumors in Guyandotte have been confirmed, and in fact, one of the most prevalent, has actually been debunked.  One house that is said to have a tunnel is the Hysell House on Main Street.  The tunnel, allegedly part of the Underground Railroad, was said to have led to the Methodist Church across the road, and then on to the river.  A tunnel of sorts WAS found at the Hysell House...but according to a local historian who investigated, it turned out to be nothing more than a bricked over cellar.  The tunnel that allegedly led to the Methodist Church turned out to exit in an area of the church that did not exist until well after the Civil War.

And there you have it...a short primer on the history of Huntington's tunnel system.  The truth is, no one really knows the entire truth, which, in the words of Joseph Plantania..."everyone loves a mystery!"

Please Note:  The photo above is NOT from Huntington, WV


  1. I believe that you should try to uncover something on the old Beverly Hills Middle School (Currently Huntington East Middle School). It is at 2901 Saltwell Rd. I was a student at the school. When the Cold War began, fallout shelters were built under the school. I believe that they connect to the tunnels. When you would enter a classroom, you could sense a presence. Sometimes (a lot) a fire alarm would go off. When the firefighters would show up, they would find the fire alarm by the office pulled. In 2006 the office caught fire. The investigators determined that gasoline in a bottle was the cause. The glass was not broken into the school, but instead the glass was all over the stairs outside. Not one shard was found on the floor. Unexplainable power outages were not uncommon. A gas line between the celling of the cafeteria, and the floor of the library exploded. It destroyed much of each rooms. Natural gas filled the whole school and it was evacuated.

    1. Wow, thanks for the information. I'll definitely look into it!

    2. (In Huntington, WV)

  2. Used to work in the basement bar Rock and Roll Cafe (Morris Building). There was a door back where the "kitchen" would have been if the bar sold food - it was usually chained shut, but when the service folks would come and change the filters on the HVAC equipment, they would sometimes leave it unchained. If you walked out the door, there was an elevator to the shoe store above, but also a bathroom in the same hallway. Inside the bathroom was a door on the wall. . about 2 feet off the floor and the door was probably 3' tall and 2' wide. You could open it up and climb inside and it was full of pipes and general garbage collected over a long period of time. Once you squeeze through the pipes, you came into a corridor that headed NORTH of 4th avenue. The walls were of finished brick and it took a hard left and terminated into a big blue metal door somewhere under or past 9th avenue. This door had a big brass key hole in it but no doorknob. There was ventilation and light in the tunnel but the tunnel was definitely headed to the Keith Albee. I have long since moved from Huntington - but I looked on Google Maps and noticed the old staircase that lead down to the "rock and roll cafe" has been filled in. Kinda sucks, cause that place has a lot of good memories.

    But I can tell you that there is a tunnel in the bottom of the Morris Building that appears to have once led you to the same block as the Keith Albee.