More than dirt lies under the streets of downtown Lawrence. There's an interconnected network of underground tunnels that join different buildings and sections of the Massachusetts Street area together.
Entering the tunnels is illegal, unless the passageway opens access to someone's property. With no existing map outlining the course of the tunnels and no knowledge of what condition the paths are in, walking underground is dangerous. Many of the tunnels have also been sealed off.
Then why are they there and what are they used for?
Many different theories and rumors circulate the town, but only some have been confirmed.
Several of the downtown tunnels were known to have been built in part by J.D. Bowersock and the Bowersock Dam, completed in July of 1874. In that time, electricity was carried via a conveyor belt system rather than through the overhead electric wires that are everywhere today.
Architectural historian, Brenna Buchanan, said the basement of Ernst & Son Hardware (located at 826 Massachusetts St.) used to be an old seamstress factory. The sewing machines were powered by hydroelectricity from the dam. In that case, Bowersock's tunnel system could have reached the store (about 0.5 miles from the dam) and branched out farther downtown.
Buchanan has been in the tunnel that starts under Liberty Hall and runs to Hobbs Inc across the street. She said the tunnel used to connect to the Eldridge Hotel, but has long since been closed off.
Lawrence Journal-World articles from 1962, 1964, 1987 and 2009 have testaments from people who had been in the tunnels all over Lawrence.
Two boys found a tunnel, what they called a cave, near West Ninth Street and Avalon Road in 1962, according to the Lawrence Journal-World. The article cited "unconfirmed speculation" about the tunnel being used for the Underground Railroad.
According to a Lawrence Journal-World article on March 4, 1964, tunnels were found under the old Lawrence Brewery and Byrd Tannery building. That building has since been razed, but the building stood on Maine Street, just north of the Lawrence Memorial Hospital. According to that article, the tunnels were supposed to be salvaged and preserved.
In 1987, two other tunnels were discovered at Sixth and Massachusetts Street when the Underwood Building was destroyed.
The tunnels aren't fancy by any means. Many of the tunnels, according to people who have seen them, aren't very big. With hardly any room to stand, people crawled through the mold, grime, and mud that coated the paths. The article from 1962 detailed how the tunnel the boys found was roughly three feet in height.
As for urban legend, anything goes.
Historians in Lawrence have been on both sides of the Underground Railroad theory, but because there isn't enough evidence proving either side, the debate still rages on.
The Underground Railroad dates back to the 1850s and 1860s. The Bowersock Dam started construction in 1872, and was completed in 1874.
In Wabaunsee County, Kan. (two counties west of Douglas County), there is documented evidence of the Underground Railroad. No such proof exists for Douglas County, but theoretically, it's possible.
Will more tunnels show up somewhere? Who knows. You never know what could be under your feet.