Long ago, I fell under the spell of mystery. As an adventurous, long-haired youngster growing up during the 1970s in Northern California, I was first smitten by the legend of Bigfoot. I remember being mesmerized by the now-famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film of a purported Sasquatch walking through California's Six Rivers National Forest — a mere 300 miles from my childhood home.
Since then, my fascination with mystery has mushroomed. Over the years, I have consumed literature not only on the endless search for the fabled Sasquatch, but also on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden (mystery solved!), and the existence of Noah's Ark. In 2008, I even had the privilege of interviewing former Kingfisher educator Pat Frost, who participated in eight expeditions to Turkey in search of Noah's Ark atop Mount Ararat.
Frost, like myself, is convinced remnants of Noah's Ark are still buried in the ice of Mount Ararat and might someday be revealed. And so the mystery lives on, if in no other place than my fertile imagination.
So when Oklahoman News Research editor Linda Lynn — one brainchild behind the newspaper's popular Stories of the Ages series — approached me about writing a story on Guthrie's legendary tunnels, I was all in like Indiana Jones. Did these legendary tunnels exist in historic Guthrie? And if so, why? The challenge appeared daunting, but worth the effort for the sake of history. Besides, what is life without adventure?
Whispers of their existence have fluttered in the Oklahoma wind for generations.
One of the more enduring legends is that an underground tunnel ran kitty-corner from Oklahoma's first state Capitol on W Harrison Avenue to the old Blue Belle Saloon, where legislators discreetly enjoyed the company of soiled doves in a top-floor bordello. Or so the prickly story goes.
Another legend speaks of Chinese immigrants moving in a labyrinth of underground tunnels. Below the city streets these immigrants supposedly engaged in their secretive subculture, which included whole textile mills and smoke-filled opium dens.
Of course, the most repeated legend centers on the Prohibition era. Smugglers supposedly used Guthrie's underground tunnels to avoid detection of the law while transporting barrels of whiskey into the town's numerous speak-easies. Of all the legends, this one seemed to be the most plausible.
The investigation would include the study of early Guthrie maps, a tour of the city's old Victorian haunts, and interviews with city works administrators, city officials, a local historian, and an alleged eyewitness to the tunnels. Yet, the first stop on this journey would take place at the Oklahoma Historical Society in a search for any written record — a letter, diary entry, official document, or any hint that the tunnels once existed.
Of special interest was the state's Indian, Pioneers Histories — a priceless collection of oral interviews collected by Works Progress Administration-era writers in the 1930s. Within this collection are the remembrances of early Oklahomans who once walked as slaves, fought in the Indian wars, participated in the land runs, helped build the railroads, and recalled encounters with legendary figures like Geronimo, Quanah Parker, and Belle Starr. Surely, someone mentioned Guthrie's hidden tunnels, right? Wrong. The collection appeared to be mysteriously silent on the subject.
So, too, did the state's academic journal, The Chronicles of Oklahoma — perhaps less of a shock given a scholar's general reluctance to wade into local legends.
The hunt continued.
"I've spent a lot of time looking for them," said Bob Thompson, Guthrie's executive director of economic development between 1983 and 1989. "I'm convinced they're down there."
Thompson, 85 and now living in Columbia, S.C., spent several years working in Guthrie's popular theatrical community. He recalled a conversation he had at that time with a former city worker who helped demolish the city's storied Brooks Opera House and adjoining Royal Hotel in 1967 at 116 E Harrison Ave.
"I was told the work crew came to the basement of the hotel and accidentally unearthed a gambling den with card tables and roulette wheels," Thompson said. "The room was filled with all sorts of gambling paraphernalia. The worker went to the foreman to see what they should do. The foreman snapped, ëFill that bastard in.' And so they did.
"Of course, Guthrie was rife with illegal gambling at one time. I have no doubt they were connected to some sort of tunnel system."
Colorful stories such as this have kept the legend alive.
"Everyone loves a good story," said Matt Mueller, who recently resigned as Guthrie's city manager to take a job in Texas. "We get calls about the tunnels all the time. One paranormal group even asked me if they could spend the night in the tunnels. I said, ëIf you can find them, let me know. I'd love to see them myself.'
"The funny thing is they insisted that the tunnels existed. I've talked to people who swore they walked in them before; said they were big enough to drive a horse and buggy through. But not one person has been able to prove they actually exist."
Guthrie is certainly a place that invites romance and mystery. The town literally sprang up overnight with the opening of the federal land run in 1889. Thousands of boomers leapt from AT&SF Railroad cars on April 22 to stake claims on a patch of prairie designated as the Guthrie township. By nightfall, Guthrie was reportedly a town of more than 10,000 residents.
In the coming months and years, Guthrie blossomed into a Victorian oasis on the prairie — an elegant place worthy of its status as the Territorial Capital and later as Oklahoma's first state capital. Then, in 1910, a public vote moved the capital to Oklahoma City.
Today, Guthrie is a National Historic Landmark with its large collection of Victorian buildings that hearken back to its glory days. The architecture and style is a reminder of an opulent time when dreamers dared to dream big in a vast, new territory, and a place where visitors now want the past to give up its old secrets.
"Guthrie is a romantic place," Mueller said. "Few towns offer this kind of allure."
Guthrie Police Chief Damon Devereaux grew up with that allure, as well as the stories of hidden tunnels in his hometown. He smiles at the notion of hidden tunnels.
"I remember as a teenager hearing the stories of the tunnels," said Devereaux, who joined the Guthrie Police Department 20 years ago. "I've heard rumors they run from the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple to the downtown district, or that they run under the old children's home Ö I've often wondered if there is any truth to the stories, but I've never found any proof."
Neither have Maxine Pruitt or Tenny Maker, perhaps the two people who should know whether there is any basis for the legend. Pruitt is Guthrie's municipal services director, and her tenure with the city dates to 1960. Maker — Pruitt's "right-hand man" — is Guthrie's street superintendent. He has worked 17 years for the city, and by his own estimation "has dug up just about every street" in Guthrie "at one time or another."
"I've heard people swear up and down the tunnels were real," Maker said matter-of-factly. "If anyone would know whether or not there were hidden tunnels in Guthrie, it would be me."
"So," I asked, "is there any truth to the stories, Tenny?"
Maker instantly and dispassionately replied, "No."
Years of digging into Guthrie's storied streets have left him dismissive and seemingly annoyed by the legend. Maker, like Pruitt, believes some of the "tall tales" associated with the tunnels can be attributed to Guthrie's downtown subbasements.
We toured a section of the historic downtown district along W Harrison Avenue, where construction crews unearthed the subbasements years ago while putting in new sidewalks. Some of those subbasements have been restored, exposing exterior stairways that descend to walkways below street level. The walkways are framed by brilliant, hand-carved sandstone walls, and a prime example can be found at the magnificent Victor Building, which was built in 1893. Today, the basement of the building houses the popular Gage's Steakhouse.
Our tour eventually carried us to another intriguing site south of Jelsma Stadium — a site often noted in numerous tunnel stories. The stadium was built in 1936 by WPA workers, and just south of the stadium is an underground drainage tunnel that can be accessed from a small creek. We climbed down to the entrance, an 8x10-foot opening that ran back to the north. Light from a street-level manhole beamed into the darkened tunnel some 20 yards away.
Could this be part of Guthrie's fabled tunnel system? Or perhaps the birthplace of the legend? The walls of the tunnel were lined with chiseled sandstone. Were they made by WPA workers in the 1930s? Or were they hand-carved by territorial workers in the 1890s?
"The tunnel only goes so far back before it narrows into two, 48-inch drainage lines," Maker said. "I can see where some local kids might think this is a tunnel system, but it's just a big drainage that eventually dead-ends. That's all."
Undeterred, the investigation carried me to the Oklahoma Territorial Museum and Historic Carnegie Library at 406 E Oklahoma Ave. There, I met director Nathan Turner, who kindly pulled Guthrie's oldest street plats, as well as some contemporary newspaper clippings about the mystery of the tunnels.
The oldest map dated to October 1903, and was made by the Sandstone Map Co. for fire insurance purposes. A careful review of the detailed map showed specific buildings, alleys, streets, and even water lines, but no tunnels.
Then again, if the tunnels were supposed to be secret, why would they appear on a public document?
"I have studied the history of Guthrie, and have even looked into the tunnels myself," Turner said. "There is no record of the tunnels ever being built — not one piece of evidence. I just think it is now an urban legend. But why not explore and have fun?"
In the hunt for Guthrie's fabled tunnels, no figure has arguably played a bigger role in keeping the legend alive than Revis Wilson. Why? Wilson claims he explored the tunnels "many, many times" as a child.
Wilson, now 67 and living in Ardmore, first went public with his claim in 1996 when he wrote a letter to the editor of The Guthrie Daily Leader.
"I am taking this opportunity to clarify the question about the tunnels of Guthrie," Wilson wrote in 1996. "Why certainly they exist, like they did in Les Miserables."
Wilson, the proud grandson of 89ers, contends the tunnels were extensive, running from Jelsma Stadium to the north under the old Brooks Opera House and Royal Hotel to E Oklahoma Avenue. From there, he claims the tunnels ran west before extending south "to a basement shop at the corner" of S First Street and W Harrison Street. The tunnels continued south to "the north end of Mineral Wells Park," and could be accessed by a large concrete structure on the east bank of Cottonwood Creek.
The last time he saw the entrance much of it had been "filled with sandy erosion."
As the story goes, Wilson and his older brother, Raymond, used to explore the city during the summer after selling The Oklahoman on a downtown street corner each morning. The tunnels provided the Wilson brothers — and their pals, Leroy and Jerry Barnes — endless hours of adventure.
"We would tie old rags to the end of a stick and douse them with kerosene for torches," Wilson recalled in a recent telephone interview. "I was about five at the time (circa 1950), and Raymond was seven. Every once in a while we would see some light from a manhole in the street above. I remember we were always afraid our torches would go out, and we'd get lost.
"I know the tunnels existed. I walked through them many, many times."
Legends are easy to cast aside.
In Oklahoma City, similar tunnel legends can be found in what once constituted old Chinatown. The Chinese were said to live in basements and subbasements with underground passageways from one building to the next. This subterranean culture truly did exist, and supposedly gave rise to the legend of an extensive network of "Chinese tunnels."
Legends of hidden tunnels, buried treasure, and secret caves are simply places that exist somewhere in the borderland of myth and reality. Yet, every once in a while that rare discovery is made, and the legend suddenly becomes truth.
Rumors of the Marlow brothers outlaw cave persisted for decades in the Stephens County town of Marlow. According to the legend, the five Marlow brothers would hide out in a cave on Wild Horse Creek and rustle stray longhorns as they were driven north along the Chisholm Trail. Generations of local children were drawn to the legend, many considering it a rite of passage to search for the secret cave.
Then, in 2004, the tire of a city worker's riding lawnmower plunged into a sinkhole. An excavation exposed what historians believe was indeed the Marlows' cave. Archaeologists discovered a 10x10 dugout braced by cedar beams, bricks, and even bottles. Today, the cave is a proud tourist site for the City of Marlow.
Will the Guthrie tunnels someday share a similar fate?
"I'd like to think they exist," Mueller said. "There's no question the legend lives. People refuse to let it die, and who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the tunnels are real."
Mueller flashed a playful grin and said, "I'd never say never."