Sunday, May 3, 2009

Urban Spelunking

Headed underground today to check out the world's oldest subway tunnel. It's true! It was built in the 1800s, fashioned after ancient Roman aqueducts, and it runs under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was the chance to head down a manhole in the middle of a busy street that sold me on this tour, but the fact that Bob Diamond, the man who rediscovered the forgotten tunnels, led the tour turned out to be the icing on the cake. Back in the late 1970s he started searching for a lost subway that he heard about while listening to a late-night radio show. After a years-long search, he unearthed tales of murder, mayhem, spies, pirate treasure, vampires, and ghosts; a long-lost map; then, finally, the tunnel itself:

The man who created the tunnel, Cornelius Vanderbilt,
was paid to destroy the tunnel back in 1871, but he pocketed the money and, instead, left it intact and bricked up the entrance and filled the short passage that led from the manhole at the intersection where Court Street crosses Atlantic Avenue (the same place where the tour began) with dirt. So to reach the tunnel, Bob had to burrow through the dirt, break down a bricked-in wall, and then climb down a sheer drop to the tunnel's floor using a rope ladder.

This was the passage that was originally filled in with dirt and the wall Bob broke through. Most of the dirt is still there.

With the exception of a rickety wood staircase and a few dim electric light bulbs, the tunnel is much the same today as it was when Bob found it--with impressive arched
ceilings constructed out of red brick and a dirt floor where the tracks used to be that's partly ridged and partly smooth. It turns out that in the tunnel's heyday trains would run on one side of the tunnel and horse-drawn carriages on the other.

Standing in the tunnel looking up. That's Bob on the left and Seth in the middle.
It's rumored that the dismembered body of a murdered foreman is sealed in the tunnel's walls, along with an original train engine and possibly pages from John Wilkes Booth's diary. Who knows if they're really there, but if they are Bob will find them!

There's a great article about it at Curious Expeditions.

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