Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer|
This tunnel extends under Second Avenue in front of the Blackburn, Maloney and Shuppert law firm. How far the tunnel goes is unclear.
Hidden tunnel found in Decatur
City historians didn’t know about pathway
By Chris Paschenko
The rat-a-tat-tat of a jackhammer jarred the memory of a partner of a downtown Decatur law firm.
Mark Maloney told a city employee, who was repairing a sidewalk next to Blackburn, Maloney and Schuppert, that there was a void beneath him.
The worker noticed the void, too, but was unaware he was standing over a tunnel, previously unknown to Decatur historians.
Where does the tunnel lead?
Who built it? What purpose did it serve?
“Mark said he’d forgotten the tunnel was there until he heard the drill,” said Gay Maloney, who is Mark’s wife and a partner in the firm.
The tunnel travels north/ south along Second Avenue and is accessible from the law firm’s basement through two antique windows.
The tunnel is 45 inches wide and supported by two brick walls that are about 8 feet high.
The tunnel’s northernmost end at Johnston Street and Second Avenue has a decorative archway, which is filled with concrete.
What lies beyond the concrete, or whether the tunnel continues underneath Johnston Street or turns west to wrap around the building, is unknown.
A series of brick-wall barriers block egress south through the tunnel, but a spotlight pierced the darkness last week to reveal a vertical, metal grate in one of the barrier walls. Beyond the grate, the tunnel continues south past the law firm’s building and into a vacant building that housed a theater decades ago.
Known part of tunnel
The Maloneys have known about their portion of the tunnel for 20 years. The firm purchased the historic two-story building at 201 Second Ave. S.E. in 1986 and discovered the tunnel while renovating in 1987 and 1988.
The building was originally part of the Casa Grande Hotel, a majestic structure destined to cover two city blocks. The hotel burned in 1902 or 1903 and was rebuilt in 1904.
Pictures of the tunnel taken last week by The Daily surprised Decatur historians Melinda Dunn, coordinator of the Old State Bank, and Morgan County Archivist John Allison.
“Maybe the tunnel was part of the original Casa Grande to service the hotel,” Dunn said. “Maybe it was access to heating and cooling.”
Allison has a 1904 photo of workers rebuilding the basement level of the hotel, which is now owned by Ralph and Glenna Jones. Ralph Jones said he saw the tunnel years ago during renovations.
“Evidently, it was used to run a lot of utilities through,” he said. “It goes on to where the Casa Grande was.”
Gay Maloney offered another explanation.
“This was a planned development to be the Chicago of the South with wide boulevards,” Maloney said. “The Casa Grande was to cover two blocks. When you think of walking along the sidewalk of a city, you see grates.”
Grates would have allowed natural lighting and air to reach basement windows, but why would the grates have been replaced with a concrete sidewalk?
And if it was merely an air, light or utility access, why construct an ornate archway at the corner?
The tunnel has an archway built into it, but why remains unknown. The tunnel is 45 inches wide and supported by two brick walls that are about 8 feet high. What lies beyond the concrete, or whether the tunnel continues underneath Johnston Street or turns west to wrap around the building, is unknown.
Historic photographs, dating to 1920, show no grates on Second Avenue. Sidewalks extend from the street to store fronts.
A downtown business owner wondered if the basement windows that face Second Avenue could have been at street level in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
“You look at other buildings and see the tops of windows and doors coming out of the ground,” said salon owner Sheree Sutton. “Maybe (Second Avenue) was elevated at the time to avoid the problem of flooding. Look at Lee Street. It’s at least 15 feet lower in elevation.”
Another explanation involves the Princess Theatre, which was a livery stable from 1887 to 1919. Gay Maloney said the tunnel could have provided access to the stable from the Casa Grande Hotel.
The building that houses Maloney’s firm has had many tenants over the years. The earliest city directory at the Morgan County Archives dates to 1911. A second directory, published in 1917-1918, lists even more tenants in the building, which had an address then of 601 Second Ave.
Joseph L. Gunter, a physician, and Charles L. Price, an attorney, are listed in both directories.
The Central National Bank of Albany was a tenant in 1917 and sponsored the second directory. It boasted $100,000 in capital and $10,000 “surplus and undivided profits.” The bank’s presence could explain why the Maloneys’ firm has a brick and concrete vault, complete with a functioning iron or steel door, in the basement.
Gay Maloney gave The Daily a tour of the renovated building, including a second-floor office that has an unusual feature in the “heart of pine” wooden floor that is now covered with carpet.
“This was a dentist’s office,” she said. “And if you step here you can feel footprints where the dentist stood.”
The 1917-18 directory lists Roy M. McGlathery as having a dentist practice at that address. He could have occupied that corner office facing Second Avenue and Johnston Street. Maybe those are his footprints.
In the 1940s the law firm’s building housed B.J. Elmore Co., a five-and-dime store.
On Wednesday, The Daily spoke to Athens resident Frank Manker, 95, who managed the store from 1947 to 1963.
He said the basement was where the business received freight. He also raised fishing worms there.
“I’ve been all over that place and never saw an actual tunnel start from that basement,” Manker said.
“But I worked for the same company in Demopolis on the river. There was a deep tunnel there. It’s said there was one in that building going out to the river for smuggling.”
The Daily tried to reach Manker on Friday morning to ask him if he remembered seeing windows in the store’s basement.
His daughter Patsy Warren answered the phone.
“He passed away at 9:10 at Athens-Limestone Hospital,” Warren said. “He had congestive heart failure. He was fine Thursday. He really enjoyed talking to (The Daily) very much.”
Warren said her father went to the law firm last summer for a tour of the building.
“They could not have been nicer,” Warren said.
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