Nashville Tunnels: What We Know So Far (Which Is Quite A Bit) | Nashville Public Radio

Nashville Tunnels: What We Know So Far (Which Is Quite A Bit)

Apr 15, 2016

There are so many tunnels beneath downtown Nashville that it’s almost hard to picture.

That’s why we’re tracking down plenty of actual pictures, along with firsthand accounts of what’s down there.

For example: the gigantic stormwater tunnel — 16 feet across — that could easily carry a canoe for a few miles (although we’re still trying to figure out if such a canoe voyage has taken place). Then there’s the 4 miles of tunnels that carry steam and chilled water to about 40 downtown buildings. And for inquiring students at Vanderbilt University: Yes, there’s a tunnel system, and it’s not even really a secret. The alumni magazine toured it, and a map diagram is available right on the Metro government website.

But there’s so much more.

We're learning about Nashville's tunnels thanks to local music producer Mitch Dane. He asked us a question for our Curious Nashville project:

"I've heard rumors of a mysterious tunnel system winding beneath downtown Nashville. Is this true?" 

Then our listeners voted, overwhelmingly, for us to pursue an answer for Dane. That's how Curious Nashville works. And to make sure we're finding what Dane wants, we asked him to guide us a bit more.

Mitch Dane, of Sputnik Sound, asked a Curious Nashville question about Nashville tunnels.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

“I know there’s some factual tunnels, like storm drains and stuff, but beyond that I’ve heard there are other tunnels that are more clandestine,” Dane told me. “I’ve heard stories that there could be slave tunnels, or they’d hide slaves, or part of the Underground Railroad. I’ve heard that people get lost and never return. That’s maybe far-fetched, but it’s intriguing. It’s part of our history that it would be fun to figure out and investigate.”

Dane is right. This is intriguing stuff.

We'll ultimately share our most interesting findings on our Curious Nashville podcast, as well as on the air.

The journey, so far, has taken me to a mid-1800s limestone basement, along the banks of the Cumberland River — and to some of Metro’s water treatment facilities. I’ve read through newspaper clippings, visited the Metro Archives to browse old fire maps, and interviewed several (mostly skeptical) historians.

I’ve also met with urban spelunkers who have a few intriguing photos. But more on that to come below, as we share what we know so far.

We’d also love to hear a fresh round of tunnel tips. If you have firsthand accounts — photo verification appreciated — get in touch via tgonzalez@wpln.org.

Sewage, Stormwater, And Steam

The giants of the underground are mostly of the municipal variety: Gigantic tunnels that you don’t likely want to visit — and which even Metro typically inspects only while wearing full protective gear.

That’s because these carry sewage or stormwater — or both, mixed. It’s a legacy system that the city has spent decades trying to modernize for sanitation reasons. These tunnels can run for miles. There's one expertly crafted brick sewer, known as Lick Branch Sewer when it was made in the late 1880s, that travels underground below Vanderbilt's football stadium and Centennial Park and then toward the east all the way to the Cumberland River.

“Those old sewers are amazing: the fact that they’ve survived now 120 years,” says Ron Taylor, the clean water program director for Metro Water Services.  “When you look down, when it goes through a turn, it looks like you’re going through a tunnel in the Smoky Mountains. They’re just beautiful, gradual turns, and the engineering and workmanship are quite impressive.”

Known in 1892 as the Lick Branch Sewer, the city's largest sewage and stormwater tunnel flows eastward just a few blocks north of the state capitol. It is now known as the Kerrigan tunnel or "regulator."
Credit Metro Water Services and the Tennessee State Library and Archives

Along with Lick Branch (now known as the Kerrigan Regulator), the other two biggest tunnels also follow the paths of creeks and streams that used to flow to the Cumberland.

The most enticing for explorers is probably the Wilson Spring Storm Tunnel, which empties to the river beneath Ascend Amphitheater. It's big and highly visible and it does not carry sewage. It's not too tough to find photos.

The other big player in the downtown Nashville tunnel game is the District Energy System, which was created in the mid 1980s with a tunnel-boring machine.

One retired pipefitter, 67-year-old Joe Russell, remembers working in these tunnels shortly after they were created.

“Most people walking up and down Broadway, and the honky tonks — they don’t have a clue what’s under their feet,” he said. “It’s kinda spooky down there.”

Like with many tunnels, there’s actually a lot of information about these on the internet. There’s even a YouTube video that shows this system.

This exposed pipe — and the hump that travels out into the distance — hints at the large brick sewer beneath Centennial Park.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

That video, available so easily, fits with one of the revelations throughout my reporting: it’s easy to overlook fascinating things.

Take Centennial Park as an example.

Maybe you’ve noticed an odd ridge in the grass in the corner between West End Avenue and 25th Avenue North. Or you’ve stepped on it and wondered why the ground was so hard.

Well, that’s evidence of the tunnel below. You can see the hump of one of the city’s oldest and largest tunnels. In fact, in one place, there are bricks showing through the grass. Easily overlooked.

Campuses And Commerce

In the grand scheme, some tunnels are specific to a single institution. This is where the systems beneath Vanderbilt and Tennessee State University come in. These carry the pipes that heat and cool buildings.

One of the largest tunnels in Nashville cuts a massive path beneath the Music City Center and Bridgestone Arena. Again, not so secretive, but definitely impressive. These large underground roadways allow trucks to load material into the buildings.

Not far from there is a passage beneath Hume Fogg Magnet High School. Former Nashville Public Library employee Carol Kaplan, who has direct knowledge, says this one is not especially fascinating.

“The clever students came to me, hoping for fun tales to tell, but there just aren’t any,” she said.

Which brings us to the heart of this Curious Nashville question: Which of the rumored tunnels actually exist? The ones that some say were used during Prohibition (beneath Printer’s Alley); as part of the Underground Railroad; or as escape routes from the state capitol?

Nefarious Passageways

From the start, we knew that confirming these would be the true challenge.

And the list of suspected tunnels has, for the most part, grown longer. I’ve also been combing through the online forums where these rumors run rampant. You’re welcome to browse them as well.

I've been trying to verify or debunk these suggestions with archived news accounts, interviews, and questions directly to the institutions that still exist.

One story that rose above the others — with tips coming to me from several sources — alluded to a tunnel between a pair of pre-1900s buildings near what is now Metro’s Fulton Campus, which is home to government offices along 2nd Avenue South.

The story: Tunnels once used to transport cadavers between the hospitals and medical colleges clustered there. 

So far, we’ve located one end of this rumored tunnel, beneath the old Litterer Laboratory, built in 1895.

WPLN reporter Tony Gonzalez speaks with Bo Collier in the basement tunnel — now blocked — of the Litterer Laboratory building on 2nd Avenue South.
Credit Lee Hale / WPLN

But finding the other end, so far, has been elusive. But not for a lack of trying.

A trip through the basement of Lindsley Hall — still in use by Metro — yielded a crawl space that feels like a tunnel, but no definite evidence of a tunnel.

Skeptics And Explorers

Along the way, I’ve turned to historians. Skeptical historians.

The typical first response to the tunnel question sounds a bit like this, from Jim Hoobler, a senior curator at the Tennessee State Museum:

“We sit on bedrock. There is limestone everywhere. So a tunnel would be a very expensive, time-consuming proposition,” Hoobler said. “It just makes no logical sense.”

They bring additional context to each rumor.

For example, the Underground Railroad would not, logically, have run through highly populated downtown Nashville.

How about Prohibition-era bootlegging? For starters, Nashville’s mayor did not initially enforce prohibition, greatly lowering the impetus to go subterranean.

“It’s a lot easier to sneak things around in the dark of night, rather than tunneling for months,” Hoobler says.

This is not to say we’ve been deterred in our Curious Nashville investigation. It just means we’ve set a high bar for verification. Here’s how Davidson County’s official historian, Carole Bucy, puts it:

“I’m going to have to see the tunnel, even if you’ve got a key to something,” she said. “People had cellars. People dug wells from time to time…”

Davidson County Historian Carole Bucy, who also teaches at Volunteer State Community College, looks over photos and maps at WPLN.
Credit Emily Siner / WPLN

But they didn’t typically make tunnels, Bucy said, at least not with the tools available. And secrecy — if dynamite was involved — wasn't possible.

Another of the most enticing tunnel stories relates to the Nashville City Cemetery (which happens to be the subject of our first Curious Nashville question).

The story goes that a tunnel, or a cave system, connects the McNairy vault to Fort Negley. While articles in 1865 recount quite a bit of local hoopla — involving a story of robbers who stashed loot underground — more recent exploration of that vault has come up empty, says Tim Walker, with the Metro Historical Commission.

“It would have been an incredible engineering feat to accomplish,” Walker said, adding, “when we went inside to assess its condition a decade ago, there was no evidence of a cave.”

Promising Leads

I’ve also showed Bucy and others a photo by an explorer who runs an Instagram photography account called @AbandonedNashville. Take a look below:

Happy hunting, Nashville! #KidsTheseDays #NashvilleUrbex #NashvilleTheBeautiful #abandoned #TrespassingForArt #IgersNashville #AbandonedNashville #explore #decay #explorenashville #UrbEx #NashvilleExplorersClub #onlytennisee #nashville #adventure

To date, this is one of the most intriguing signs of a "clandestine" tunnel — as our question asker Mitch Dane alluded to at the outset. On first blush from the historians, they said the location of this one, along with its construction materials, makes it a candidate for subterranean movements beneath downtown Nashville. But there’s more investigation needed.

Perhaps the other most intriguing tip about downtown tunnels surfaced thanks to an otherwise facts-focused talk with Ron Taylor at Metro Water Services. He says several underground passages were encountered when the department had to create a massive tunnel in the late 1990s. But details on those — so far — are scant.

But I'm still on the hunt. And I titled this account "what we know so far" for a reason. The plan is to reveal our most intriguing tunnel finds in the next episode of our Curious Nashville podcast, and we'll have more photos, maps, and videos available online.