Kansas City's underground history includes long forgotten tunnel

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In downtown Kansas City, amidst the hustle and bustle, people move from place to place in cars, buses or on their feet. They are often unaware of what is right beside them or right below them.

Just beneath the intersection of Eighth and Washington - lies the old 8th Street Tunnel. It's a piece of history Kansas City forgot for 40-years.

"Very few people still remembered it. It was lost in time," explains Thomas Duenez. "This tunnel was built in 1887 by D.M. Edgerton and Robert Gillham. They were the two brain trusts and financial powers."

Thomas Duenez is an Allied-Barton security officer. However, on this day, he is our historian and tour guide. Coincidentally it is May 10, 2012 – the 125th anniversary of the date construction started on the tunnel.

"It was 22 feet wide. It was 18 feet tall. It's about 810 feet long. Present day today it's about 100 feet shorter due to the I-670 loop."

The 8th Street Tunnel operated for nearly 68 years, moving people from downtown to the West Bottoms by trolley car. As the increase in car ownership decreased ridership, in 1956, the city shut down the trolley, sealed off the tunnel, and basically forgot about it.

Just up the river and across the state line, you will find more historical secrets hidden beneath what is today the home of the McCaffree-Short Title Company. Vice President Randy Herrman also serves as an occasional tour guide.

"A lot of people refer to this as the Leavenworth underground," he says.

On the corner of Fourth and Delaware, beneath what was once the old First National Bank of Leavenworth, Herrman unlocks the remains of an underground city of sorts.

"All the offices here right around the central part of the city of Leavenworth have these downtown areas in them," he continues. "They're very similar to what we're looking at right now."

Tucked away in a maze of hallways and doorways, is a picture of another time, dating back to the late 1800's. Today, access is rare.

"When we come down here now we have a maintenance problem," Herrman laughs.

Few seem to know the real origins of this city. Some speculate that businesses just added stories over time as paved roads and new construction standards evolved. Others point to the Underground Railroad. Herrman is not so sure.

"My research indicates that the Underground Railroad did go through Leavenworth, but it appeared a serious of safe houses on the southern part of the city, more through the town. That's not to say that it couldn't have happened, I just can't substantiate that."

Back in the 8th Street Tunnel, history is a little more concrete.

"Everyone has a strong amount of pride for all of the historical landmarks throughout Kansas City, and this is one of ours," said Duenez.

Engineers unearthed the forgotten tunnel in 1996 while doing survey work for the construction of State Street Bank. For nearly seven decades, trolley passengers traveled through the tunnel as part of their daily lives.

"Originally, it was around 3 cents a fare roundtrip," Duenez says. "You could buy it for the day. It ran about $1.56 roundtrip by the time they shut down the tunnel in 1956.

After about 10 years, the trolley system continued to face ongoing problems with repairs. The cables kept wearing out because of the 8.8 percent incline. So they fixed that by building another tunnel, digging underneath the first one at a 5.5 percent grade. That tunnel would operate about 55 years.

It's the remains of both, one on top of the other that engineers unearthed and preserved.

As Duenez leads our tour, we start in the original tunnel, walking on top of the 1903 one. We pass stalagmites and stalactites formed in the damp conditions.

The structural integrity of the tunnels is an ongoing concern because of the moisture. For that reason, the underground is only opened for occasional tours, and then only on a short deck built in recent years.

To reach the bottom, we walk to the very end of the top tunnel. Because of the grade, the ceiling and floor come within about three and a half feet of one another. We make the last few feet crouched down. From there, we straddle a ladder and descend into the eerie darkness below. The modern lighting only extends through the top tunnel.

On this day, our cameras are not only here for the first time. This is the first time anyone has been down here in more than a year. Duenez notices a number of changes. He points to a wooden beam that used to hang from the ceiling. It's now lying on the ground, half disintegrated.

"This is what happens to the wood when it falls on the ground," Duenez explains.

Armed with flash lights, we navigate through the mud, stepping over fallen cables and light fixtures. We reach the far end of the tunnel and the spot of what would have been a subway platform of sorts.

Duenez and our crew notice a big surprise on the wall thanks to the addition of our bright camera lights.

"Today we were able to spot where it actually states the station's name," Duenez says, pointing. "Washington

Avenue."

Sure enough, hidden on the discolored wall, stained by time is the word "Washington." It's a picture of another time – of Kansas City's underground history.

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