Farmer Gary Machens discovered an ancient tunnel beneath his house in West Alton, Illinois. He found it after the sidewalk beside his house collapsed, revealing an archway that led to a cavernous space.
“Had a problem here at the sidewalk and as we were doing some excavating and repacking of the rock here, we discovered this tunnel here,” he told Fox 2 Now. “Whatever they built this for, it took a lot of men and a lot of hours. You know, one guy didn’t do this.”
The brick-lined tunnel is about nine feet high and 60 feet deep, though one end of the tunnel suggests that it probably extends further back. The farmer believes that when the street aboveground was made in 1895, it caused a change in elevation that buried the opening.
“Why is it stair-stepped like this? Why is that in there?” Machens mused about the quirks in the tunnel’s structure. “Do you see the offset in the brick? And if you look along this wall it turns that way a little bit.”
Uncovering the tunnel’s history
Machens asked around the city about the mysterious shaft and found that it was probably built around 1840. This would predate his house by 50 years.
“The house was built in 1890, the tunnel is believed from 1840, so it was here for 50 years,” the Illinois farmer said, noting that city maps dating back to the 1860s did not feature his or any other house on the property.
“Three former mayors of Alton have lived in this house through the years. I don’t know if any of them knew about this [tunnel],” he added.
The Alton Telegraph reported that Lucas Pfeiffenberger, an architect and the 25th mayor of Alton, built the house for Cap. Henry Brueggeman, who eventually became the city’s 27th mayor. In the 1920s, the home was sold to a carpet store owner before Paul Lenz, Alton’s 49th mayor, bought it years later.
Machens visited the city’s historians and learned that there were a few similar tunnels around the city. Some of these were used as an icehouse, while others were used as a root cellar. The West Alton resident also surmised that the tunnel beneath his home might have been used by the Underground Railroad, a Civil War-era movement that used secret routes throughout the U.S. to escape captivity.
“There’s no proof of that but there was a ferry here in the Alton area to the Missouri side and it’s possible it could have been used for that,” he said. (Related: Researchers discover ruins of lost colonial tavern in North Carolina: Cache of artifacts is a “time capsule” of history.)
Machens, a professed history lover, shared that he wants to preserve the tunnel. He is open to the idea of opening it for tours if he gets help with logistics and cost. But for now, he plans to fix the sidewalk and seal the archway.
19th-Century tunnels found beneath Alcatraz
Former maximum-security prison Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco is known for detaining some of the most notorious criminals in America. In 2019, researchers discovered a 19th-century network of tunnels and fortifications beneath the famed prison.
“These remains are so well preserved, and so close to the surface,” Timothy de Smet, an archaeologist from Binghamton University and the lead researcher of the study, told PBS. “They weren’t erased from the island – they’re right beneath your feet.”
The U.S. government claimed Alcatraz Island for military use in the 1840s. Over the next decades, it built fortifications as part of a plan to convert the island into a fort. But the military eventually vacated the island because the fortifications had become obsolete.
The construction of Alcatraz buried the island’s former architecture, leaving it largely forgotten for several decades. However, the 19th-century artifacts had been preserved and terrestrial scans showed evidence of trenches and ammunition magazines beneath Alcatraz.
Discoveries.news has more fascinating findings of America’s rich history.