Underground Morgantown

Knowing Morgantown’s back roads, cut-throughs, and workarounds is what distinguishes old-timers from new comers. But no town gets to be 200-plus years old without burying some secrets. You don’t really know the city until you know what lies beneath it.

Some of these sites are on private and institutional property. The owners and managers granted us access in service to knowledge of our city history. Please respect their privacy.

Falling Out of Sight

Once a series of charming, rocky cascades, Falling Run starts in the heart of the WVU Organic Agriculture Research Farm off State Route 705, about a mile from the Monongahela River as the stream trickles. The valley it drains separates the Woodburn neighborhood from Sunnyside and Wiles Hill and it’s so deep that, 100 years ago, people crossed it on a long, high wooden footbridge. Although we try to ignore that valley today, it’s still one of the main reasons it’s so hard to get across town—we drive around it either above the headwaters, on 705, or on University Avenue near the stream’s outfall into the Mon River.

But where is Falling Run when University should be crossing it, at the bend near the College of Business and Economics—at the intersection with Falling Run Road? “Falling Run used to run back behind Woodburn Hall. But when they built the old Mountaineer Field in the ’20s, they channeled Falling Run underground,” says Morgantown Utility Board spokesperson Chris Dale. “In the old photos, you can see the concrete box culverts they built—which are still there.”

Morgantown magazine staff were surprised to stumble across the outfall during a lunchtime walk over the summer. The brick archway that faces the surprisingly large tunnel bored into the stone can be accessed by wooden steps leading down from the Caperton Trail, a little north of Stansbury Hall.

 

War-time Shelters

War-time shelters—bomb shelters, air-raid shelters, fallout shelters, bunkers—were constructed underground at private residences and public buildings around town during the contentious mid-years of the 20th century. They’re hard to find now, but we did locate a 1962 fallout shelter license for The Metropolitan Theatre. Lynn Stasick of Preservation Alliance of West Virginia got into the shelter, in the theater’s sub-basement, in the ’80s. “There were these wooden pallets with metal canisters, survival crackers, and survival water,” he recalls. Joe Kaehler, who’s managed the Met for 10 years, says there’s nothing there now. “No signs or paraphernalia that’s shelter-related.”  

Some locals believe they remember shelters under one of the buildings on Walnut Street and under WVU’s White Hall, and records in WVU’s West Virginia and Regional History Collection suggest there was also one under the old university bookstore, behind Colson Hall, which now houses the university registrar.

 

Rebel Jail

Deep in the unlighted bowels of the Berman Building—the turreted 1852 brick structure at the northwest corner of High and Walnut streets, where Dirty Bird is now located—lies what’s left of a jail said to have housed Civil War prisoners. “The jail cell earned Morgantown the epithet of being a ‘stinking Yankee hole’ during the (1863) raid on the city,” says historian Barbara Rasmussen, who wrote the claim into the Morgantown Historic Landmarks Commission’s 1996 nomination of the Downtown Morgantown Historic District for National Register of Historic Places registration.

Exploring under the Berman Building today with a flashlight it’s possible to identify at least one wooden cell and another two sets of bars that are part of a confusing layering of older and newer walls. The people most familiar with the city’s history don’t know why there would have been a jail separate from the county jail. “Maybe they had more people than the regular jail would hold—they might have used it as an auxiliary jail,” speculates historian Pamela Ball, chairwoman of the Morgantown Museum Commission. “Or maybe they thought Confederate prisoners would be easy to find in the main jail house, but less obvious at an auxiliary site.”

Little is said of prisoners of war in Morgantown lore, but here’s a story that likely refers to the county jail. In the wee hours of May 6, 1864, a small band of rebel soldiers made a run on the jail and released a Van Cicero Amos. Van had been arrested in Marion County on charges of “secreting himself within our lines,” according to the Morgantown Weekly Post, and of stealing horses. Van knew in advance that he would be busted out. In an odd twist, before his compatriots arrived and “without any ceremony smashed the locks,” he composed a letter to his jailkeeper, a Mrs. Stewart. “To-night I leave you. I would stay and see my trial through with, but the Union party are using all influence against me that they can, trying to prove a thing which I am not guilty of,” Amos wrote. His trial was scheduled for the following week. “I will be relieved by five or six confederate soldiers, who come expressly to release me. They will also accompany me to Dixey. Prison is not for the innocent.”

 

Underground Railroad

Escaped slaves are indeed said to have passed through the Morgantown area on their way to the Mason-Dixon line and freedom in Pennsylvania. But if you’ve heard 123 Pleasant Street was a stop on the railroad and that’s why the music club was named that in an earlier incarnation, it’s unlikely: The brick rowhouse apartment building was constructed in 1891 almost three decades after slavery was abolished.

 

Hick Dissection

“In the early days of the medical school, WVU medical students would dissect human cadavers for study in the basement classrooms of Woodburn Hall,” says storyteller Jason Burns. “The cadavers were kept in the Hick House. A plaque near Woodburn documents the origins of the name. The School of Medicine says in its history online that cadavers were referred to as “hicks” rather than “stiffs.”

 

Time, Encapsulated

If we could open a 100-year-old time capsule today, what would we find? A 1914 map of town, photos of trolleys and the first automobiles, samples of locally produced glass objects, maybe one of the first shirts to come out of the Morgan Shirt Factory, and an issue of the Morgantown Post-Chronicle.

Every once in a while, humans get the grand idea of communicating with their descendants. That happened at least twice in Morgantown in the latter half of the 20th century, resulting in two time capsules buried within 20 years and a few hundred yards of each other.

Coming due in 2067 is the WVU centennial time capsule. Created in 1967 as part of the university’s centennial celebration, the time capsule—which, in photos in WVU’s West Virginia and Regional History Center, looks like a small concrete coffin—was originally buried under Memorial Plaza in front of Oglebay Hall. It was moved during construction to a spot in front of the Mountainlair.

And set to be opened in 2085 is the Morgantown bicentennial time capsule. It was buried at the steps up to Woodburn Circle from University Avenue, in historian Pamela Ball’s recollection. The book Morgantown Bicentennial contains a photo of a plaque—but that plaque is now nowhere to be found at that location. “My guess is they’ve taken that away,” Pamela says, “maybe to protect it from vandalism.”

Opening a care package from our forebears must be a titillating event. Were they funny people? Serious? Will they reveal something about ourselves we did not know? In the interest of maintaining the suspense, we did not ask and can only wonder what is in these capsules. Although then-student body president Michael Oliverio did volunteer, “I think somebody threw in some cigars.” Also to be wondered: What will trigger our descendants to think of and open these time capsules? Are there any in town that were forgotten and lie unopened?

 

Steamy Underbelly

In Jules Verne’s novel about Morgantown, a WVU professor discovers giant serpents that survived the Cretaceous extinction by taking up life in steamy burrows under the city.

OK, Jules Verne never wrote about Morgantown. But anyone who’s lived here has heard of the steam tunnels. The name is pretty self-explanatory: a network of utility passages that conveys steam to WVU buildings for heat. But it’s also evocative: Do they snake all through campus? Are they muggy, like an underground greenhouse? Do tropical slimes grow on the walls? Morgantown magazine got a look inside.

The tunnels are not filled with steam. But they are a warm, hissing, winding, neon-lit burrow worthy of a sci-fi novel, filled mostly with pipes that carry steam. Gauges and valve handles of all sizes and vintages sprout here and there from the conduits. The level of the stone and dirt floor in the main walkable tunnel changes unexpectedly, and it has the occasional puddle that is inevitable underground, but it’s mostly dry. The air is dry, too, and odorless, and the walls are completely free of tropical growths.

Some readers will remember an old coal boiler plant that stood next to Stansbury Hall. It generated the steam it sent through tunnels to WVU’s downtown buildings, according to WVU Facilities Management Director of Maintenance Daniel Olthaus. The original, walkable main tunnel runs from beneath that old boiler plant to near the Mountainlair, and smaller tunnels branch off from there to all the major downtown campus buildings—about a mile of tunnels altogether. The function of the boiler plant was taken over by the Morgantown Energy Associates (MEA) plant a half-mile away after it was demolished around 1990. Evansdale was served earlier by its own boiler and buried pipes and is now served by MEA as well.

The tunnels are very carefully maintained: Facilities Management performs upgrades throughout the tunnels on a three-year cycle, and someone from MEA walks the tunnel every day. The tunnels now house other utility functions as well: water, telephone, fiber-optic cable, and electricity. No worries about dinosaur-era monsters escaping: The entrances are well sealed.

 

Prohibition Tunnel?

As this issue was going to print, we had entirely given up the idea that there were ever tunnels between the Met and Gibbie’s. “I heard those rumors. We tried to find them,” said Karl Yagle, whose family ran a jewelry store for decades in the Met building and later next door. Ten-year Met Manager Joe Kaehler dismissed it with a laugh: “It’s a fable.” But then we received this note from Kay Comuntzis-Getsinger, whose grandfather built the Met and whose father ran a restaurant where Gibbie’s is now. “As a little girl, I remember running from our family restaurant under High Street to the Met. It was sealed many years ago when river rats became a problem all over downtown Morgantown, probably in 1954 or 1955.” Some people, in spreading this rumor, have referred to it as a Prohibition tunnel, and we can only note that Prohibition started in 1920, and theater construction started soon after. When we put it to Kay, she laughed and said, “Maybe that's what it was for!”

We were also helped on this story by Jack Bowman, Barb Howe, Linda Little, Michael Mills, Jenny Selin, Tim Stranko, Jack Thompson, and WVU’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.

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