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Streetscape Project fuels legend over possible tunnels

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- A downtown streetscaping project is fueling decades-old rumors of a tunnel system that kept Clarksburg rootin' and tootin' throughout Prohibition.

Outside City Florist's street-level facade, recent excavation exposed a narrow basement room and three arched doorways that lead toward Main Street's underbelly. That building once housed the Orpheum Theater.

"(Mayor) Terry Greaver and I were out walking around there last Friday and we saw them," said Jim Hunt, a Clarksburg city councilman who immediately thought of the alleged tunnels. "There are a lot of nooks and crannies there. It's pretty neat."

On closer inspection Wednesday, Hunt and The Exponent Telegram discovered that each doorway leads only to a small brick- and stone-lined room. Hunt soberly noted he had stood on top of one of the approximately 5-by-8 foot rooms, whose arched roof is now beginning to collapse.

Whatever the rooms were for or if they were connected to anything larger may never be known, he said. The voids will be filled in to support a downtown beautification project that will stretch from Third Street to Fourth Street.

Tunnel devotees point out that the Main Street discovery isn't the first to hint at a system of passages that could have allowed the covert transport of moonshine and a handy escape route should its consumers encounter a police raid.

In recent years, a number of tunnel-like cavities and underground rooms have been found. They include locations such as: Under Pike Street near the Rose Garden Theatre, near the site of the new Clarksburg Municipal Building, near the former Recreation Center between Pike Street and Traders Avenue, in front of the former Parsons Hotel on Fifth Street and in front of the Jack's Furniture Center Warehouse on Baltimore Avenue.

Naysayers, however, say a system as extensive as folklore suggests should have caused many collapses by now. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933.

Also, a number of individuals interviewed for The Exponent Telegram's extensive 2001 story about tunnel lore said there are plenty of above-board reasons for underground rooms. Some could have housed coal chutes, mechanical lifts or wine cellars, for example.

Hunt noted several owners of downtown buildings may also have extended their basements toward the street during a time in which building codes were loose -- simply for the extra space. He noted the streetscape revealed such an expansion at the Goff Building, just a few doors down from City Florist.

Lawrence Wood, a former Bank One officer, said the basement of that Main Street-facing building also extended under the sidewalk by a few feet. He suspected the room, which had a 10-foot ceiling, was somehow used for storing coal.

Taking a last look toward one of the subterranean doorways, Hunt said he is curious to see what other discoveries are ahead as the excavation proceeds down both sides of Main Street.

"You just never know," he said.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.