🧱 THE LEGEND OF DOWNTOWN FREDERICKSBURG'S UNDERGROUND TUNNELS 🧱


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Written By: Zach Champ

As a kid growing up I would sometimes hear rumors about something mysterious lurking underground in Downtown Fredericksburg.

Reminiscent of ancient myths like the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, or even the Lost City of El Dorado, the story of the underground tunnels of Fredericksburg Virginia has been an enigma to many for decades. Are they real? Who built them? What is their purpose? Can you access them today? These are all questions that few seem to have the answers to.

A mystery almost lost to time, Hoodie Goodies decided to get the real scoop on what exactly is going on with this interesting local legend.

We visited the Fredericksburg Area Cultural History Museum as well the Virginian Room archives at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Downtown Fredericksburg to conduct research. We were able to find publicly accessible information on the tunnels and piece together a picture of what is really going on.

WHAT ARE THE TUNNELS? 

So just what exactly are the tunnels?

The tunnels are a series of layered brick underground passages scattered in various locations downtown.

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Photo Courtesy via Free-Lance Star. Read the source article here!

Some of the tunnels have sand floors, which archaeologists have speculated was done intentionally. The tunnels include a drain built into the walkway and were built on a sandstone foundation. The ceilings are about 6 feet high at their peak and feature vaulted brick arches.

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The tunnels are spread throughout Downtown Fredericksburg. They are located under George Street, Princess Anne Street, Caroline Street, Dixon Street, with rumored locations elsewhere. It is not clear if the tunnels are part of one constructed system of underground passages, or if they are all independent and separate passageways built at different times.

WHO BUILT THEM?

Masons of course!

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A project like building the tunnels would have been a significant undertaking, requiring the mobilization of the local community’s local workforce, and most likely included the use of slave labor as well. Both skilled and unskilled laborers would have participated in the construction.

Building the tunnels would have been no easy task and would have required knowledge, expertise, and skilled labor that specialized in carpentry, masonry, irrigation, surveying, and other important technical skills. The project would most likely have been led by a college-educated individual or group of persons who would direct the construction activities performed by local workers and/or slaves.

It is very likely that the tunnels were built as part of the City of Fredericksburg’s original urban planning and design, and were intended to be used as part of the daily trade and business occurring in the growing community at the time.

WHY WERE THEY BUILT?

People don’t realize that the Rappahannock River was significantly different in the past. During this time the river was several feet deeper than it is today, and the river was much larger. Why? Because this was before the completion of several dams which significantly reduced water flow and volume to the Rappahannock.

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During the early to mid-1800s Fredericksburg was a prosperous inland port and was a major stopping point for ships carrying merchandise and goods from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. Ships routinely sailed up and down the Rappahannock and unloaded their cargo at the docks in Downtown Fredericksburg.

All types of artifacts have been found in the tunnels ranging from Chinese porcelain to coins and other small goods. It is theorized that the tunnels were built to help facilitate the movement of this cargo from the docks directly to the shop’s basements and storage rooms.

There is evidence for this in the form of smoke smudge marks from the use of torches in the interior of the tunnels. The tunnels themselves are elaborately constructed and feature brick vaulted arches with built-in drainage in the walkways. Clearly, they were built for sustained use and with dimensions that would accommodate people and supplies frequently moving through the passages.

Painting by Don Troiani "Fire on Caroline Street" 

While the tunnel’s original purpose is a mystery, we do know they were later used for a variety of reasons throughout the remainder of the 19th century and early 20th century. During the U.S Civil War, the tunnels were used by both the Union and Confederate armies to secretly store and move around supplies and contraband. During the early 20th-century prohibition-era they were used to smuggle alcohol. Who knows what they have recently been used for…

ARE THEY STILL ACCESSIBLE TODAY?

No. All the tunnels are inaccessible to the public today.

Why? Mainly for safety concerns, as the tunnels are hundreds of years old and have not been repaired or maintained for decades. It is extremely dangerous for community members to try and go into the tunnels.

The dangers and risks range from potential suffocation due to lack of breathable air, to the potential collapse of the fragile tunnel brick walls, to illness or disease from exposure to rodents, spiders and other creepy crawlies.

Even though the tunnels are off-limits to the public, some people do have access to the tunnels.

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Photo Courtesy via Free-Lance Star. Read the source article here!

There are several shops in Downtown Fredericksburg which have access to the tunnels through their store basements. Utility companies that work and service certain roads in Downtown Fredericksburg also are aware of the tunnels and have to account for them when performing any work-related activities that require digging such as working on sewage drains, laying fiber-optic cable, repairing roads, etc.

Walking along the banks of the Rappahannock, especially near the public parking lots and Brock's Riverside Grill along Sophia Street you can find the remains of several of the tunnels former entrances along the river. As the riverbank slopes down to the water, you will find piles of old bricks that look like they were demolished and then cemented over. There are about four of these distinct looking spots along the riverbank here.

People claim there are other entrances and access points spread throughout Downtown Fredericksburg. Many of these claims are unverified, but for those seeking an adventure, maybe finding the hidden tunnel entrances is the next big weekend activity!

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We here at Hoodie Goodies just want to remind everyone that you need to get permission from private property owners before you go exploring and to make sure that if you do find historical artifacts you treat them with respect and do not disturb them!

If you did find something, you should call the Fredericksburg Area Museum so they can send archaeologists and historians out to assess the situation. When you remove or disturb historical sites and artifacts you make it harder for professionals to do their jobs in discovering and learning about the past.

Just let it be so the next person can enjoy it!

AN OPPORTUNITY PRESENTS ITSELF: THE TUNNELS & TOURISM

The tunnels are an interesting historical feature and are very relevant to much of Fredericksburg’s local history.

Residents in Fredericksburg want to learn more about the tunnels. They are exciting, and there is an interesting mystique to them. The fact they are shrouded in so much secrecy and speculation makes them intriguing.

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Photo Courtesy via Free-Lance Star. Read the source article here! 

We here at Hoodie Goodies think that the City Council and Fredericksburg Area Museum should try and pursue a project where they make one of the tunnels a tourist feature. This isn’t a new idea and has been brought up before.

Why make the Tunnels a tourist feature? The answer is easy: money!

The tunnels could easily provide additional tourism opportunities for the City of Fredericksburg. They could also revitalize interest in local history and help local area museums and historians engage with the community’s youth over a topic that can easily serve as a launching pad for further discussion related to Fredericksburg’s history and culture.

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Photo Courtesy via the Free-Lance Star. Read the source article here!

Making the tunnels a tourist attraction could easily be done if organized correctly and done in collaboration with local and regional non-profits! The underground tunnels could arguably even be a National Park or Monument due to their historical significance.

Imagine a bold vision that would be to work with the National Park Service to make the underground tunnels part of the Fredericksburg Battlefield or as a separate protected historical site! There are grants existing at the State and Federal levels for historical renovation projects like this.

This would be a great opportunity for the City of Fredericksburg and its residents!

GOING DEEPER UNDERGROUND: TUNNELS AS INFRASTRUCTURE FOR FREDERICKSBURG 

The tunnels cover a significant portion of underground space in Downtown Fredericksburg. As it stands, the tunnels are currently just sitting underground, slowly falling apart and not being used. This is a shame because the tunnels can surprisingly be used to help benefit the local community in many practical ways!

How? As Fredericksburg grows, the significance of Downtown Fredericksburg as the main hub in the area for shopping, recreation, entertainment, and tourism is going to become prominent.

Let’s be real- Fredericksburg is only going to get more crowded.

Downtown Fredericksburg is already experiencing developmental changes to anticipate the growth in its local population. Already new neighborhoods, businesses, and restaurants are opening up. The new arrival of condominiums marks the arrival of the next stage of Fredericksburg’s history.

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The skyline of Downtown Fredericksburg is evolving and growing higher... Fredericksburg is finally maturing from a historic small town to a bonafide urban city!

It’s an exciting, yet anxious time for local residents to witness. Many community members are concerned that the growth is happening too fast and is not being moderated enough. Unforeseen consequences loom in the near future…

UNDERGROUND PARKING & SHOPPING

Residents base their future concerns on how the area has developed in the past few years. One of the biggest issues is road capacity, traffic, and parking.

This is where the tunnels come in- if we repair and fix the tunnels and underground infrastructure in Downtown Fredericksburg we could build new infrastructure to help the area with its growth.

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One of the easiest projects that could immediately begin would be the construction of a new underground public parking lot to help relieve traffic congestion on the streets above.

Another way the tunnels can be utilized could be to convert them into underground shopping, similar to the retail spaces in Crystal City in Northern Virginia.

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Photo Courtesy via Flickr. Photo by Teo.

Underground shopping is a cool way to provide novel retail experiences for residents. Not only that, but underground buildings provide benefits such as reduced heating and cooling costs during the summer and winter.

THE TUNNELS AS A STARTING POINT FOR A FUTURE FREDERICKSBURG-NORTHERN VA METRO SYSTEM?

I-95 is one of the worst interstate highways in the nation for commuter traffic. Average commute times for 30-mile trips can sometimes take up to an hour and a half of travel time! This is costly to residents, local businesses, and local governments and is a safety hazard to have so much traffic congestion.

Many local residents that work in Northern Virginia are familiar with options to the dreaded I-95 commute. This includes car-pooling, EZ pass lanes, and taking alternative forms of transportation like trains.

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Photo Courtesy via Virginia Railways Express 

Amtrak and Virginia Railways Express operate train lines that go from Richmond to Washington D.C with intermittent stops in throughout Northern Virginia.

However, even the morning commute on the VRE is already getting more crowded! Not only that it is expensive- costing almost just as much as the cost of traveling by car!

VRE has built new stations in Stafford and Spotsylvania to expand the VRE and use of it. But in the next few years, if population growth trends continue as they have, this may not be enough! So what is there to do to address this issue?

The next step would be the development of a future Fredericksburg Metropolitan Area metro-rail system reminiscent to that used in Washington D.C and New York City. The tunnels could once again be used to create an underground station that could service a theoretical new metro-rail line running to Stafford, Woodbridge, Fairfax, Alexandria, Arlington, and D.C!

This could be the possible future of the City of Fredericksburg 5 to 10 years from now!

THE TUNNELS AS UNDERGROUND DATA STORAGE? 

Big Data is the new economy. Across the country, hundreds of data centers are being opened up to house servers that store and process the vast trillions of bytes of information flowing on the internet. Large companies like Google, Dell-EMC, Amazon, and others are among the many businesses which need infrastructure like this setup.

Data Storage requires a lot of electricity to run the equipment, but also to cool the systems from overheating. To save money on electric costs, many data storage sites are built underground to capitalize on the natural cooling properties of underground structures. Tunnels and caves sometimes make the best starting point for these new facilities…

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An Underground Data Center

Once again our tunnels under Downtown Fredericksburg can be modified to be utilized for such a purpose. We could create underground spaces that could be bought and maintained by large tech companies like Google or Amazon for their data storage operations.

This type of project would bring jobs and large amounts of revenue to the community. It would create a demand for specialized technical skill sets and would foster a more STEM-oriented local economy versus a retail and service-oriented economy. It would change the culture of Fredericksburg!

These are just some of the ideas which could revolutionize the City of Fredericksburg by utilizing and appreciating the value of one of our cultural and historic properties…

Only by discussing these ideas and educating people about these properties can we create meaningful and productive change in our community.

The tunnels were built by our town’s ancestors for use in commerce and trade and so that we as a community could use them to benefit our residents.

Let’s not disappoint them with continued secrecy and speculation and move forward with a new vision for the underground of Fredericksburg!

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CITATIONS & REFERENCES

Article: “History is lurking beneath our feet” By Cathy Jett. Published by the Free Lance Star. November 8th 2018.

Photo: “FIELD TRIP- City Council Visits Downtown Tunnel” Published by the Free Lance Star. November 15th 2018.

Article: “The Forgotten Tunnels of Fredericksburg” By Harvey Cunningham. Published by Fredericksburg Times. July 1977.

Book: “Fredericksburg Underground” Article: “Fredericksburg’s Forgotten Tunnels” By Barbara Crookshanks (Editor).

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