Dave Frees II has some doubts about the existence of tunnels in Phoenixville. Dave, a respected historian, charter member of the local historical society, had this to say.
"I hear a lot of stories about tunnels," the phone voice told me. "But my basic belief is that they were misconceptions. I don't believe they (our predecessors) would have built the tunnels. I think the tunnels were storage areas: summer or winter cellars."
The Annals of Phoenixville by Pennypacker dishes out a specific description of the tunnel sponsored by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company on the north side. A gang of tough guys worked for two years, 1835-18371, to dig the throughway after canals proved too inefficient. The men cussed, drank and physically pummeled each other, but the job got done. It stopped at one stage because the problems were discouraging.
The Annals state: "...a tunnel through solid rock. 1,932 feet long and originally 19 feet in width and 17 feet in height ...the tunnel, running beneath a large part of north Phoenixville designated in consequence as Tunnel Hill,... commenced at each end, and also at five shafts sunk vertically from the surface at different points along the railroad route."
Charles Irey said he recalls, as a boy, going under a tunnel at the present location of St. Peter's Place at Church and Starr Streets. Since this was once the site of the majolica pottery, I'm wondering if that tunnel was in existence in majolica days.
John V. Norris told me there are two tunnels near the old Goldberg's Junk Yard, now Phoenixville Scrap Company, at St. Mary's and West High streets. As a reporter for The Daily Republican years ago, John checked them out. He said, "There's a lot of water there, and it's dangerous.
"There's also an old tunnel near the Robert Ryan's Catering, 400 Bridge St., (the old Reading railroad station). Look north. It's about one quarter mile. You cannot go underground. The tunnel was opened in 1839."
A tunnel with a walloping tale tied to it is the Servants' Quarters (sometimes called the Gardeners' House) belonging to the Reeves family. Charles Buski, who rented the house twice in his life, lived there as a child, and showed me the trap door hiding the tunnel. Under the trap door now are weeds, snakes and perhaps rats. You can see the arched stone entrance or exit to the tunnel at 99 Starr St.
The neighbors boarded up the open part of the tunnel to discourage vandalism. I talked to some neighbors.
It is widely believed, but not proven, that the tunnel was used by slaves escaping to freedom. It is known that the tunnel also served cattle passing through to higher ground in rural days.
Along with the other restoration and historical efforts of Phoenixville folks, if this tunnel were opened, cleared and supervised, it would be a terrific point of interest for tourists. We should not try to imitate Manayunk to highlight our borough's progress. We should take our own history and hype it. Would you agree, reader?"
If so, write me care of 352 Samuel Nutt Road and let me hear your memories, facts - but lie low about fiction.
I believe in the tunnel and the escaping slaves' tale. I told it to Girl Scout Troop 420 in 1987. John V. Norris accompanied me.
In response to letters about the Nutt Road Time Capsule, I heard from several including Shirley S. Smith of Spring City. She wrote. "It is great to have people stir up our history and historical names. For too many of us (unfortunately I am included) don't bother. Perhaps this column (Nutt Road Time Capsule) will stir me out of my lethargy and get me involved, perhaps with the historical society."
Thank you, Shirley.
This tunnel subject reminds me of an old chorus:
Got any rivers you think are uncrossable?
Got any mountains you can't tunnel through?
God specializes in things thought impossible -
And He can do what no other power can do!
With Valentine love, Keystone Connie