A RECURRING THEME THROUGHOUT MANY SITES WE ENCOUNTER is the subject of tunnels and underground passageways. To anyone in search of adventure, these dark, mysterious caverns can create some highly imaginative tales. The history of (man made) tunnels in New Jersey can be traced to the first Dutch settlers who built underground rooms, often to store perishable foods.
But the history of the tunnels extends far beyond just storage rooms. Many were constructed as safe shelters from Indian attacks. (Not that the Leni Lenape were a savage group, but when they did attack, your last resort for safety was to go and hide your scalp).
When the first settlers came to New Jersey, they took shelter in the local cave systems until their homes were established. Maybe that's when the underground craze started.
But what was the reason for these tunnels to have continuously been built after most of the Indian Nation had diminished? One theory is because of British rule; colonists took to these tunnels to fend off the redcoats during the American Revolution. One underground passageway unearthed in Newton was an arched brick-lined tunnel that extended 100 feet, then stopped dead. What was its purpose? Obviously some thought was put into the construction. A historian was brought into the passage and he confirmed the tunnel's architecture to date to the early 1700s. Colonists seemed to be obsessed with making passageways underground, and from stories told to Weird NJ, that obsession has never stopped.
We only have to bring up the subject of tunnels (and we do, a lot) and we're told of routes underground that have legendary proportions.
"When I was in Kearny High School, we spent many Saturdays in the 1920s exploring the old Schuyler Copper Mine on the east side of the ridge." says Merrill Harvey in a recent letter. "The mine was opened by Schuyler in the 1700s, the richest mine in the colonies, according to Ben Franklin."
The Schuyler Copper mines have recently been the talk of the town in North Arlington, where shaft holes occasionally swallow up neighbors' back yards, as with the case of Pat Acocella's home, where the first mine shaft opened up in 1989, making Bergen County officials scramble to collect state emergency funds to seal the 279-year-old divot. Thirty- two similar holes were fixed with a matching federal fund.
To construct these tunnels must have been an amazing feat, and some of these manmade wonders still exist. The Dutch Reformed Church of Belleville, a historic landmark built in 1692, has a tunnel that goes underneath the Passaic River into Lyndhurst.
"There was a folktale regarding a tunnel from the mine to the church which no one believed," stated Harvey. "How could a tunnel run from the mine at least a mile or more down and under the Passaic River? I remember a tunnel in the mine which was always flooded and a flashlight showed it going down and under the water. However a few (10 or 15) years ago a young man organized a 'schuyler Historic Foundation" to research the mine and I was one of those who answered a letter in the Star Ledger and became a member. I met and talked to two members of the foundation who, in the 1930s, had followed that tunnel (dry) down and under the river and came up to what was the church wall! They found no exit apparently and went back as they had come. This at two different times, as they did not know each other then.
I talked to a young man who had told me that he saw the entrance in the basement of the church.
"I lifted the door in the floor and there it was!" he said. The church people were interested but afraid of publicity so there was no follow-up. So there it is, the only entrance now to the mine with its 75 foot shaft, rooms with 40 foot ceilings and a flooded tunnel."
Judy Gluck, whose family roots go back many generations in Bloomfield, recently visited the Bloomfield Steak House, once her ancestor's homestead, and one of the oldest houses in the state.
"The owner of the building let me see the hidden tunnel," she writes. "It's not open to the public, probably because of insurance reasons. It was exciting to me . . . going down the old staircase - the wooden door leading to it is ancient, with old original beams. The tunnel beginning is large. It surprised me - the size of the room. People could have very well stayed there comfortably for awhile. It goes for about 15 feet and then it is walled up. As I stepped up onto the stone threshold I thought how my ancestors had led people into it. I knew the tunnel had been used to hide the women and children of the Davis family from British terrorists that came to town while their men were away fighting the Revolution."
Maybe these tunnels had a reason after all.
Weird NJ was invited to speak at the Central Jersey Grotto meeting to dispel rumors of rampant tunnel activity in Northern NJ.
The grotto seemed quite amused that we would think these tunnels are real, since they've never seen them. We didn't get any answers from them pertaining to manmade tunnels, but we did see a few pictures of local caverns they have mapped. What we didn't understand was why one of these spelunkers would take a picture of himself naked inside a cave.
Recently a few amateur spelunkers fell into a 50-foot shaft in northern NJ. None were seriously hurt but spent a good 24 hours in a big hole in the ground. Tunnels and adventure - they go hand in hand.
At a local bar we struck up a conversation with a patron who claims there are tunnels from the Ballantine House in Newark that go for a mile. No doubt an escape route for the famous beer baron or an access tunnel to one of the many brewery rooms underneath the city. Brewery vats were recently uncovered by the Department Of Transportation during construction work on one of Newark's pot-holed streets. More tunnels . . . everywhere.
A church in Newark claims to have a tunnel escape route that was used for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. We talked to a local historian that was invited to see this tunnel shaft that opened up from a door on the church floor.
"It was there. I saw it, but I was afraid to go into it," he said.
It would seem only natural for tunnels to be used during prohibition, being that was the only way to transport liquor - and of course every speakeasy needed an escape route.
We visited a bar in Bergen County that had tunnels from the cellar to another building across the street.
"If these walls could talk," said the elderly owner, whose father ran the business when local gangsters were regular customers.
"The tunnels were used to bring liquor in when my father didn't want to pay the prices he was told to pay," he said. "They've been boarded up for years."
Larger structures built in the early 20th century, such as hospitals and factory complexes with more than one building, used underground passageways to easily get from one place to another without the hassle of climbing stairs or avoiding inclement weather.
One such structure we were invited to view was a county mental institution, whose tunnels were legend when I was younger. The stories of escaped mental patients living in the tunnels were always local lore whenever we rode by.
Although the tunnels were no longer used, they once contained beauty salons, recreational rooms, wood shops and an occasional escaped patient.
The ongoing study of tunnels continues.
You can read more on The Tunnels of Death in issues #8, #9, #10, #11, #12, #13, #14 and #15 of Weird NJ.