In 1950, the Hardy boys, Frank and Joe, explored yet another mystery in their latest novel, The Secret of the Lost Tunnel.
Although the teenage sleuths were in pursuit of Civil War gold, impressionable Astoria youth - who filled their heads with this sort of thing - must have asked, "Could such an adventure take place in my hometown?"
Certainly, there are enough creaky, old houses waiting for flashlight exploration. Undoubtedly, there are more than enough crotchety characters running loose to serve as red herrings in multiple novels. And yes, Astoria has "lost" tunnels.
If given the opportunity, Frank and Joe would likely investigate Astoria's urban legends. How about the rum-running tunnel connecting the home of a cannery magnate and bank president with that of an attorney and state senator? Sadly, there is no truth to it. What about the tunnel used to escort Chinese "slaves" up the hill to the homes of the wealthy? There is no physical evidence or social circumstance to support it.
Eventually, our boy detectives would stumble across old maps and documents filed away in a City Hall vault. A drawing on linen marked "Plan of Astoria Tunnel" would confirm their hunch. With dire warnings from city fathers - and copies of 110 year-old drawings in hand - the boys would search for clues in Astoria's urban forest and upper neighborhoods. If they were lucky, they would stumble upon two tunnels.
In Astoria, fact is almost always as interesting as fiction. The truth about its tunnels is no less so. Here then are stories, based on newspaper and oral history accounts:
It was miserably wet in May 1895. Astoria was undertaking a huge civic project which included the construction of Reservoir No. 2. A short list of construction materials is impressive: 40,000 yards of dirt, 800 wagons of brick, 50 tons of steel bands, 50 tons of couplings, 500 wagon loads of wooden pipe and 40,000 tons of steel pipe. It was said more horse teams were needed than men. However, the horses struggled in the mud and little work was accomplished.
Nearby, contractor J. F. Behm toiled in the early stages of constructing a water tunnel through Coxcomb Hill. Astoria did not have a pump to get the water over the hill, so it was decided to construct a gravity flow system through the hill. Engineers bored holes in its 900-foot long route, verifying the hill's soil and rock composition. Behm and several of his men carved a 100-foot tunnel into the hill. The rain-soaked earth gave way around one of the engineer borings. A hole nearly 6 feet in diameter was formed as two tons of earth fell into and blocked the tunnel entrance. The men were frightened. Behm, the consummate leader, said, "Boys, we will camp right here and go to work." And so they did. The debris was cleared the following day and a breach of heavy timber was constructed.
Their tunnel, designed by engineer Arthur H. Adams, is 4-feet wide and nearly 51/2-feet tall. It is lined with red brick. An 18-inch diameter wood pipe was set in its center. The pipes, which still serve Astoria, carry water from the reservoir to a residential district, where they connect with buried water pipes. Access from street level to this end of the tunnel, has been eliminated. And for good reason.
Wally Palmberg, athlete, coach and author, told of exploring the tunnel when he was in grade school during the 1920s. He and two of his buddies climbed into it, guided by two candles and two flashlights. "We had no idea where we were until we emerged," he recalled in Cumtux quarterly magazine. "If the tunnel had caved in on us, no one would have known where we were."
An additional reservoir was constructed to meet Astoria's growing needs. In 1917, Lars Bergsvik designed a 1,200-foot tunnel for the benefit of Uppertown residents. Norwegian-born Bergsvik was Astoria's chief engineer. He also oversaw the construction of fortifications at Fort Stevens and Fort Columbia by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was superintendent of construction for several lighthouses built in Alaska by the U.S. Lighthouse Bureau.
His tunnel is six inches narrower and lower than that designed by Adams. The concrete-lined tunnel is nearly oval in transverse section. The confined, oddly shaped space is inherently difficult to access for maintenance.
Their own biosphere
Every once in a while, city of Astoria crews verify the conditions of the water pipes and their surrounding tunnels. Ken Nelson, of Public Works, does not like going inside. The tunnels, it seems, create their own biosphere. According to Ken, the tunnels are inhabited by the largest crickets he has seen in this part of the country. Their leg span is the size of a man's palm.
Around 1960, the city of Astoria hired two men for its maintenance crew: Art Hippensteel and Alvin Pollard. Both men worked within Astoria's tunnels. Art calls the tunnels a "spooky thing." He explained that prior to entering one end of the tunnel, the opposite end was opened as an escape route for its many rats. The two men proceeded down the tunnel, sometimes stooped over, straddling the pipe, while looking for breaks in the pipe's joints. Breaks frequently occurred due to natural earth movement. If the men saw water squirting, they pounded a cork and iron seal into the lead joints.
One day, Alvin came home from work with a horror story. It is not clear whether he was working alone in the tunnel that day. It was very clear he hated rats. Alvin, a former employee of the Pillsbury Flour Mill and a longshoreman, was well acquainted with Astoria's rodent population. Alvin also hated working in the tunnels. There were rats everywhere. Nests of rats. And, they used the water pipe as their personal highway.
Alvin said in some places, the pipe was not on the tunnel's floor. Instead, it was near the arched ceiling. In order to get past, he had to squeeze to the side of the pipe, sometimes brushing his cheek against it.
Normally, rats scattered, running deeper into the tunnel when they heard Alvin coming or saw the beam of his flashlight. Not that day. Something excited the rats. Instead of running away from him, they ran toward him. En masse. Alvin clubbed them with his flashlight. Then the flashlight broke. The tunnel was black. The confined space enveloped him.
There was no room on either side of the pipe to truly run. And, Alvin's frame was too tall to stand up. His torso was hunched around the pipe while his back was pressed against the wall. Rats were running on that pipe. They were also running at his feet. Alvin scooted along the tunnel as quickly as he could, racing to its open end.
He reached daylight, but was not out of the tunnel. Alvin needed to scale a 15-foot ladder to reach ground level. Some of the rats were faster than him. They were already climbing the vertical wall. Alvin grabbed hold of the ladder's rungs and pulled himself upward. A large rat, perched on a rung above Alvin's head, blocked his path. Alvin, as any former longshoreman could, used whatever was left of his flashlight and made short work of the rat. Climbing to safety, Alvin sealed the tunnel.
It is no wonder, then, that city of Astoria staff is tightlipped on the location of the Astoria's tunnels. They do not want anyone climbing inside and getting hurt. Besides, discretion adds to the mystery and keeps the town's overactive imagination intact.
Frank and Joe Hardy would not have it any other way.
John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria.