Beneath the Surface

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Is Savannah hiding secrets under its famed brick and ballast-stone streets? Beth E. Concepción combines nosiness and fearlessness to find out.  »  Photography by Beau Kester.

Ordinarily, I head to B. Matthew’s Eatery on Bay Street for the amazing smoked salmon BLT.  On a chilly day in January, though, I ask if I can take a gander at the cellar.  Margaret Coughlin, the restaurant’s general manager, takes one look at my straight-from-work getup of a skirt with heeled boots and deadpans, “I hope you have some different shoes.”

I’ve come prepared.  We move outside, where Coughlin yanks back the metal cover built into the sidewalk and says, without fanfare, “There it is.”

Steep stone steps end in darkness.  My hostess climbs down and disappears into the shadows.  While patrons munch on black-eyed pea cakes, I hunch down and crawl into the black space beneath their feet.

Rumor Has It

I’ve heard whispers for years that a vast and elaborate tunnel system lurks under Savannah’s streets.  Allegedly, B. Matthew’s is one of many places in town that offer access to this labyrinth.  But Savannahians are master storytellers.  With a location this steeped in history, there is no shortage of compelling plotlines and colorful characters.  Sometimes, though, it can be hard to sort fact from fiction.

Tourists and locals alike have heard accounts of shanghaied seamen, drugged and captured at the Pirates’ House, then shuttled to waiting pirate ships via a secret tunnel.  Another legend holds that the bodies of people who succumbed to yellow fever were spirited through an underground network to prevent panic above-ground.  Still another tale tells of runaway slaves hidden under the floor of the First African Baptist Church, then ferried out of harm’s way via the Underground Railroad.

Savannah tour guide Chase Anderson, of Savannah Ghost Walks and Chase Anderson’s Civil War Savannah and Haunted History Tours, knows these stories and more.  He tells me that the cellars of many Bay Street businesses were once interconnected, creating a complex system for the transport of “all kinds of things.”  The way he says this with a knowing look makes me realize he is talking about illegal stuff like whiskey during Prohibition.

But there’s something more sinister that Savannahians don’t like to talk about. The slave trade was big business in Savannah, despite the fact that Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe was adamantly opposed to the “permanent use” of slaves.

Yet, “it was the biggest business this country has ever embarked upon,” says Karen Wortham, historian at First African Baptist Church.  Vestiges of Savannah’s unsavory past remain all over the city.  Though they are not denoted with historic markers, the stains linger.

Savannah’s ancestors sold slaves in Wright Square on the first Tuesday of every month, in a ritual not unlike today’s property auctions at the courthouse.  Where were these slaves confined?  In slave yards off Johnson Square, says Savannah historian Hugh Golson.  Under the northwest corner of Ellis Square, says Anderson.  In the Cluskey Embankment Stores, says Wortham.  We’re talking miles of painful memories with nothing but historians to tell the tales.

These narratives remain underground in more ways than one.  If you start asking questions, you are likely to hear the official version of “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”

That much is true.

The only evidence that Savannah’s subterranean world once held slaves exists in the floors of the First African Baptist Church.  Patterns of holes in the floor form an African prayer symbol known as a Congolese Cosmogram.  Wortham says they were used as air holes for slaves hiding beneath the floor.  She says she’s always been “too chicken” to go into the hidden passageway.

When I try to gain access, Atricia Roberts, the community relations and events director for the church, simply says, “There is no access to an underground level.”

Stranger Than Fact

It seems Lady Astor’s so-called “beautiful woman with a dirty face” has some dirty hands as well.  The more I dig, the more dead ends I encounter.  Two people tell me about a conduit that supposedly stretches from Battlefield Memorial Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevardto the bluff.  “Storm drains,” says Ken Kelly, head of the city’s stormwater management department.

“They are from the Civil War and are made of brick,” he explains.  “I could see where people could possibly misconstrue them to believe they were used for human passage, but they were not intended for that.”

Many people point me to the rum cellar in The Pirates’ House that supposedly used to lead to a tunnel to the river—for the aforementioned shanghaiing.

“I think that’s fiction,” says Golson.  He notes that most piracy had ended by the time Savannah was founded—and that the Pirates’ House wasn’t named such until it was purchased by Herb Traub and Jim Casey in 1953.  But what about the legend of Captain Flint?

“Herb and Jim dreamed that up.”

Those are fighting words in a town that subsists on history, but Golson knows Savannah.  The other nail in this coffin of legends is driven home by Brad Wilkinson, the senior engineer for network underground at Georgia Power.

“We do a lot of digging,” he says.  “There have always been ideas of tunnels out to the river, but we’ve never found anything.”

But stormwater czar Kelly reports that there is a tunnel—now inaccessible from the Pirates’ House side—that ends under Randolph Street.  And the river’s path used to be a little more inland than it is now.  The logical users?  Rum runners, not raiders.

There are other tales.  Rumors of a boxing ring under Circa 1875, a bishop’s tunnel under Drayton at Perry Street, a barrel vault under Broughton Street from East Broad Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.  There are stories of the Sons of Liberty meeting in secret in the underground cavern that is now the cellar of Sweet Melissa’s.  There are whispers of a tunnel for slave transport under what is now Screamin’ Mimi’s that led to the basement of the Pulaski House Hotel, now Regions Bank.

If there is any truth to these claims, it lies behind bricked-up walls and “progress.”


Buried Truths

The one tunnel that I can confirm was built for human transport is the one by the former Candler Hospital, now the Savannah Law School.  Built in 1884, the underground room and adjoining passage were used for autopsies.  Golson says a friend of his remembers when hearses would load coffins from the shaft on the Forsyth Park side of the street.

According to a Savannah Morning News article from 1884, Candler’s Board of Managers directed the construction of the underground chamber to replace the former above-ground morgue: “The dead house, which was an unsightly structure, has been removed and a new one erected underground from plans furnished by the architect and landscape gardener John F. Daly.”

Was it used—as rumored—to conceal yellow fever fatalities and subdue a city-wide panic?  Again, no; the last epidemic was eight years earlier, in 1876.

But the Candler tunnel is not the only interesting thing I find underground.  With city permission, I lower myself into a manhole off Bolton Street and find an 8-foot-wide, brick barrel vault for drainage.  There are many more of these vaults, plus numerous cellars, remains of old outhouses and other interesting artifacts underground.

“Every time we dig around here, we find those things,” Bret Bell, public information officer for the city, tells me.

In fact, in July 2012, city workers unexpectedly found a cover to an old cistern in Wright Square after removing a support where the square’s benches sat.  Cisterns were used to hold water for cooking or cleaning when the first people moved in around the square—then, later, for firefighting.

Luciana Spracher, the director of the city’s archives, shows me a map of Savannah circa 1796 that indicates there are perhaps seven more cisterns beneath the city’s squares.

I’ve been told to look under B. Matthew’s for iron hooks once used to chain slaves.  As I start down the stairs, I see them.  But they’re on the stairs, and thus unlikely to have been used for the reported purpose.  It’s more likely that they were part of a pulley system for goods, or perhaps used to lock down the door, according to Golson.

But the cellar proves enlightening in unexpected ways.  I spot large niches in the walls that once held shallow cabinets, the remains of which are still there.  Behind the cabinets, there is enough room to hold a person—perhaps a slave, Golson allows.  There are two magnificent brick fireplaces.  Golson says they could have been used for rendering animal carcasses or for heating, depending on the history of the building.  The truth lies buried somewhere with the building’s former owners and tenants.

I’ve lived in Savannah for more than 20 years, and this is the first time I have gone below the surface of my city, both figuratively and literally.  And though there have been many dead ends, much like the tunnels themselves, I find answers to questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask and discover some truths along the way.

When it comes to preservation, Savannah is a champ.  We know how to make the city streets sparkle.  But, as Golson says, “We’ve got to do more.”  We need to preserve all of the city’s past—to shine a light into the darkness and dig even deeper.