Mysteries of Savannah's Tunnels

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The “Real” Savannah Underground

The Mysteries of Savannah’s Tunnels

by Jacob Cottingham








We stand three astride, like an early adult version of the Goonies – myself and two friends, both named Pat. Before us is an unassuming hole, the opening to one of Savannah’s greatest mysteries, the mythic Candler Hospital tunnel. Legend has it that beneath Savannah lays a twisted old tunnel system where victims of the 1876 Yellow Fever epidemic were buried to prevent citywide panic at the sight of so many dead. Of course, there is also the Pirates House tunnel, and the Underground Railroad hideouts beneath several buildings, but this was the potential mother load of adventures. I imagined nothing short of the famed Catacombs below Paris, another gothic adventure of mine some years back.

Intrigue has spun around the Savannah tunnels for over a century. Nearly 50 years ago, a William H. Whitten wrote in the Savannah Morning News about secret autopsies held in the passageway and noted that a Mrs. James Harrison remembered playing in the tunnel as a youngster in the 1880’s. Her grandfather, Dr. Stephen Harris, apparently “had told her years before of his having witnessed the bodies of yellow fever dark from the woods for burial.”their history, but all seem agreed that written records of the tunnel’s construction are scarce, due to the lack of information in hospital minutes. An unaccredited typewritten page, written in September-October 1958 and found in the Georgia Historical Society, claims that “Others say it (the tunnel) was built during the War Between the States.” Rumors run rife about the tunnels and victims being secretly moved through the tunnel to the ‘marshy and wooded’ area adjacent to the hospital (today’s Forsyth Park) for quiet removal during the

The entrance hole we now face is roughly 6 feet wide by 4 feet long and approximately 8 feet deep, with a small stepping-stone at the bottom. As we lower ourselves down the stone walls, we are not afraid of ghosts. Rather, it is the horrors of reality we guard against. We come prepared with a small assortment of bladed weapons – a Buck knife left from my Scouting days, one Pat carrying a Japanese Katana replica, and the second Pat wielding a German engineered Leatherman, complete with fold out hammer and blade. We each clutch a flashlight, and it’s the job of the sword-bearer to lead the way.

Hobo junkies, who we pray not to find, would make a formidable foe to our pasty party of surface-dwellers. Another fear that circles about is that of a lingering strain of Yellow Fever – for which I can’t recall receiving a vaccination.

Especially worrisome is the fact that looking down into the tunnel entrance, we spy an old crumpled up blanket and a soaking wet pillow. Scattered about rest a couple exhausted beer cans and an empty box of menthol cigarettes. Perhaps, we speculate, the small bit of standing water that pools up near the belongings had created an unbearable mosquito orgy and feast, thereby preventing any restful sleep to the vagrants. To combat this, we have on boots and long sleeves. One Pat is carrying a supply bag consisting of a Camcorder, doctor gloves, zip lock bags, an industrial rubber band for tourniquets, a handkerchief, hat, respirator and sterile bandages.

Our mild trespassing pales in comparison to the dirty deeds committed by Savannah pirates of yore. The legendary “Pirate’s House” is home to what is perhaps Savannah’s most famous tunnel. This house, also known as the Herb House, is one of the oldest structures in Savannah, having been constructed in 1734 – a year after General Oglethorpe and his band arrived. The Pirate’s House is unfortunately unable to offer much in the history of the building other than the standard-issue placemat that every tourist sees. This fact-laden sheet claims that the “Old Pirates’ House first opened in 1753 as an inn for seafarers, and fast became a meeting point for bloodthirsty pirates and sailors from the Seven Seas.”

Pirates are likely the worst punk rock meets motorcycle gang combination of venereal disease-ridden hooligans to ever exist. They have no regard for law, hygiene or social niceties. They are not to be trifled with. According to the placemat, “Stories still persist of a tunnel extending from the old rum cellar beneath the Captain’s Room that led to the river through which men were carried unconscious, to ships waiting in the harbor. Indeed many a sailor drinking in carefree abandon awoke to find himself at sea on a strange ship bound for a port half a world away.”

We place our arms on either side of a corner, and each of us lowers himself down onto the stepping-stone. As all three of us stand on the floor of the tunnel, the flashlights come on, revealing a four-foot wide passage and a small room that appears to expand in both lateral directions. The tunnel continues before us, through the room and past it for several feet before ending, where a shaft of light exposes PVC pipes of different girths crossing above the top of passage way. The sword handle is gripped, but the blade remains sheathed. We spot something on the floor in the room and cautiously make our way down the fifteen (feels like forever) feet of passageway that leads into the room.

The Georgia historical Society has a vertical file on the tunnels and that is where I find Mr. Whitten’s article. He describes the tunnel he went down into as much more preserved than the one I see. He mentions a stone tablet inscribed in Latin with the phrase “Have Respect for the Dead”, and he triumphantly declares “scattered loose boards along a floor keep a careful walker from stepping into puddles of water.” He describes a sink that sits on one wall and a stone slab on the other.

Over at the Pirates’ House, there in the corners of the dining room are two entrances to what are the apparent Pirates Tunnels. In one corner is an arched tunnel entrance, with the bricks square a wrought iron metal mini-fence that encircles the hole. It is roughly ten feet deep and a sign claims it was uncovered in 1962 during renovation of the restaurant. The sign closes ominously with “When it was constructed and by whom is still a mystery.”

The second Pirates’ House tunnel is more ‘official’ if you will. These are the descending stairs down into the rum cellar, which people (including this intrepid reporter) are not allowed into any longer. It is a legitimate passageway, and due to its underground nature appears to technically be a tunnel. The sign above it states, “According to legend this stairway at one time led to the entrance of a tunnel which ran from the old rum cellar beneath the Pirates’ House to the banks of the Savannah River a short block away…”

As our small band of explorers creep up the darkened passageway, near the old hospital the clutter on the floor comes into focus under our flashlights and our apprehensions are confirmed – the room is most definitely a vagrant nest. A queen size mattress lies in the left corner, with a pile of shoes in the corner nearest the base of the mattress. On the other side of the room a broom stands propped against the two intersecting walls. The place is like the Boxcar Children, without the boxcar or children. One section of the wall appears to have had something bricked up, after which a primitive attempt was made to pull the bricks away. It has the feel of a nascent prison cubbyhole, or a secret stash. We hypothesize that the strange bricks hide further tunnels, and begin to grow disappointed at our now shortened adventure. It appears that the room is the only explorable section of a vast underground network, possibly with skulls.

On the walls various vandals have scrawled their crack-induced verse, and the only real evidence of the age of the passageway are two metal hinges that tuck into the walls, in the section of passageway directly after the room. We climb out of the tunnel without disturbing the nest, and set out looking for more entrances.

Whitten postulates that medical students residing at the college in the 1850’s preformed autopsies in the room. He also claims “unverified reports” which discuss slaves escaping through the tunnel when Savannah was occupied by the Union Army, and more significantly, mentions several other “unverified reports” which state that the tunnel went underneath Drayton Street to the “dummy forts” in Forsyth, along with the speculative possibility of two additional rooms which caved in. He says that a “brief search recently by members of the Park and Tree Commission failed to reveal more of the tunnel on the park side of Drayton Street.”

Finally, the article mentions a plaque that seems to provide some clue to the tunnels origin. A photo of said plaque runs as an accompaniment to the story. The plaque reads “Erected AD 1884 by the Board of Managers of Savannah Hospital: James H. Johnston, M Solomons, WW. Cordon, CM. Holst, Wm Hunter, George J. Mills, W. Duncan, MD,” below which is a small break in the list of names, and then a continuation, “Medical Staff: TJ Charlton MD, WH Elliott MD, John Martin MD, JPS Houston MD, W. Duncan MD, RJ Nunn MD”

An unaccredited article at the Georgia Historical Society from June 23, 1946 goes into some detail about the Pirates House. It debunks the myth that Captain Flint (from Treasure Island fame) died in the house. However there is a great amount of information on the shanghai-ing of sailors. Mrs. Marmaduke Floyd, a resident of the house and a repository of Savannah history tells the author of the article about to the dining room table and says that is where the Captain and an agent would conspire about which of the seamen would be drugged, and claims that the price was $12-14. She tells a story about a Savannah police officer who was missing from his beat for three years after being drugged and taken around the world as a forced laborer on a ship. The article points out the rum cellar below the nefarious dining room scenes, but makes no mention of a tunnel.

Another piece on the Herb /Pirates’ House gives a breathless account of the unveiling of an even more mysterious Pirate tunnel in 1948. With the headline “Sealed Underground Tunnel Discovered at Herb House” author Carrie Hayes tells of the then-current owner of the Herb House in the process of renovations done on an “outbuilding” about 15 feet from the house. Workmen discovered a loose board on the floor, which was pulled up. This led to other boards coming up and revealed a ten-foot long by three-foot wide passageway. The unidentified workmen in the article assert that this was “the most ancient brick and mortar they had ever seen.” After locating a ladder, someone descended and reported back – there was a metal door, relatively new, blocking further travel. As the excited crowd anticipated a pirate’s treasure or the body of Captain Flint, the door was pulled away with a crowbar. Unfortunately, what lay behind it were merely some boards blocking a passageway filled with dirt.

An article by Cliff Sewell in the Savannah Morning News Magazine, dated November 25, 1973 discusses Forsyth Park and contains this revealing passage on the purported tunnels, “Legend reports that a tunnel discovered under Candler Hospital ended in Forsyth and was used to carry away the dead during the Yellow Fever epidemic… an authoritative source called the legend ‘poppycock’ because if the purpose was to conceal bodies why bring them out in a public park? Legend proponents have also overlooked the fact that Candler was then only a hospital for indigents and soldiers. Possibly the below ground cavity was a sewer or a morgue.”

One local authoritative source still exists. Jefferson Hall, tour guide and Savannah history enthusiast, has long been interested in the many stories of our town’s past. Hall is fascinated by how the truth becomes distorted by re-tellings of a story over time. In the early nineties he worked at the Georgia Historical Society and did his own tunnel research. Hall speculates he visited the tunnel in 1993 and said that the plaque had since been removed, but that the sink was still there. He insists that the “tunnel” is actually an old morgue, and that there are no continuing passages, and no evidence of body smuggling. Hall directs me to the microfilm collection of newspapers at the Georgia Historical Society, and gives me the date, June 15, 1884.

Sure enough, in that Sunday’s paper, next to an article about “Base Ball and Racing” is the unaccredited piece “Improvements at the Hospital.” This article has the sub—headline, “The Grounds Being Beautified with Fountains and Flower Gardens – The Dead House – How it is Constructed and for What Purpose.” The Board of Managers is credited with the direction of the project, and the newspaper notes that among the improvements “the dead house, which was an unsightly structure, has been removed and a new one erected underground from plans furnished by the architect and landscape designer John F. Daly.” It states that the main structure is “12 feet in length, 10 feet in width and about 8 feet in height.” Interestingly, according to the article, the ‘tunnel’ used to be illuminated by a skylight in the center of the ceiling, “the only portion of the dead house visible above ground.”

There is a further description of the structure, and the article claims “There is probably no superior morgue of its size in the United States.” In addition to the sink and slab described by Whitten and Hall, the original morgue contained a “gas fixture with two burners, protected by ornamented ground glass shades, hanging directly over a marble slab or dissecting table about seven feet in length and thirty inches in width, which occupies the centre of the room.” The floor of the room was stone and there existed an incline running up to Drayton Street, “upon which a car is run from the floor of the dead house up to a point on a level with the Dayton Street pavement, where a close iron door opens outward from the wall which forms the enclosure of the hospital grounds.”

There is also a description of the plaque and the actual Latin phrasing of the passage which Whitten cites “de Mortuis Nil Nisis Ronum.”

Yet the bottom of the tunnel mystery is deeper still. Questions persist. Some speculate that the morgue, conveniently placed underground, merely covers up and fills in the pre-existing tunnels used in an earlier era. Several people, including an old-timer outside the Telfair elderly home on Park Ave. told me of tunnels leading to the river. Recently, bodies from the Yellow Fever epidemic were unearthed in Thunderbolt as the foundation for an apartment building was being dug. The tunnels of the underground railroad snake throughout the city. Suggesting a possible intertwine with other of the tunnel networks.

Where the tunnels may lead future investigators is anyone’s guess.








Tunnel photos by Jacob Cottingham
Doctor photos courtesy Walter Reed Hospital
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