Abused mental patients, a mummified Egyptian priestess, and the escapades of Al Capone are all characters in real-life horror stories revolving around secret underground tunnels hidden in plain sight here in Louisville. Some tunnels are open to the public, while others are known only through legends.
For example, EP Tom Sawyer State Park is home to Sauerkraut Cave, just a few hundred yards away from the archery fields. This graffiti-covered cavern, nestled in the woods, was used as part of the old Central Mental Hospital to store sauerkraut and milk before refrigeration. Paranormal investigators have reported hearing noises and mysterious music playing throughout the park. Yet, some tunnels harbor haunts of even more epic proportions.
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Pleasure Ridge Park was home to the Body Chute, a 600-foot tunnel used to transport thousands of deceased tuberculosis patients out of the hospital from 1910 to 1961. To not discourage other patients, it was used in secret. The owner, Tina Mattingly, knows it as more than just a place with a dark history; she also regards it as a personal space.
Other tunnels were nestled in more popular destinations, like the famous Seelbach Hotel. Since its opening on 4th Street in 1905, its 500 rooms have housed everyone from royalty to some of the nation’s most heinous criminals. While the opulent stays are well-documented, the hotel’s darker secrets lie nearly two stories below its lobby. The first escape route, an old brick tunnel stretching 20 feet, was used as a passageway to distribute steam heat from pipes throughout the hotel in the first half of the 20th century. This open cavern has since been walled off but once provided easy access to neighboring buildings if a guest was in need of a hasty exit.
Once used for water drainage and rain runoff, another tunnel now sits dry and musty. With the help of an old cable spindle for a boost, an explorer can follow the 60-foot tunnel around a curve, ducking to avoid the occasional rusty pipe. At the end are two doors, both sealed shut.
We explored the longest tunnel under the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Crescent Hill. Stretching the length of the hundred-acre campus are several such tunnels. Regrettably, the cavernous tunnels also lead right under the Calloway Archaeological Museum. A glass display of an Egyptian sarcophagus sits amongst these seemingly uninterested students, engrossed in their laptops and textbooks. Inside the sarcophagus lies a woman named Shureet-my-heat, a priestess dating back to 700 BC.
But there was one tunnel I had walked above every day without even knowing about it. In the basement of the Courier-Journal lies the relics of a dark day: September 14, 1989. A disgruntled employee entered the Standard Gravier offices, a printing company that shared the same facilities and complex as The Courier-Journal, and shot eight people, wounding 12. Bullet holes can still be seen in the tunnel between the stairwell the shooter descended and the stairs leading to the press room on the ground floor, where most of the killings occurred.
With all these tunnels, some memories are better left buried. Others are just waiting to be explored – if you dare.five.