The Leavenworth Underground City Mystery (Updated)

(Update: For those who are interested, there’s an article in pdf form describing the underground in more detail at LV Mag, the magazine of Life in Leavenworth County.)

I’ve been busy with departmental stuff the past few days, so posting has been light. I thought I’d share this little bit from Leavenworth, Kansas: apparently there’s an old, small underground city underneath the downtown that nobody knew about until recently and nobody knows what it was for!

Details in the news article are sketchy. There isn’t any information on the overall size of the area, the number of rooms, or when it was rediscovered. There’s an accompanying video which doesn’t add much to the tale.

The report suggests that the underground city “was created in the 1800s and could have been used during slavery or for fugitives.” (Again, it doesn’t suggest what evidence suggests this.) I’m not so sure about the slavery angle, myself: Leavenworth was founded in 1854, only a few years before the Civil War and the end of slavery. The earliest settlements presumably came with the foundation of Fort Leavenworth in 1827. It seems unusual that a significant ‘underground railroad’ stop, complete with shops, would have been feasible for a town of 7,000.

The only clue that seems to be present is the remains of a store sign, with 10¢ displayed. Of course, without knowing exactly what that money buys, it’s a bit hard to narrow down the date.

Anyone have their own pet theories? Post ‘em in the comments!

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52 Responses to The Leavenworth Underground City Mystery (Updated)

  1. Morlocks? That’s utterly ridiculous! It’s clearly the work of mole people! :P

  2. Sean Robert Meaney says:

    Based on the 10 cent symbol and it appearence (and historical use of the symbol) – 1890′s -1920′s.

  3. Leviathan Q. Perkadoozle says:

    Clearly it’s related to the Kansas town of Stull, and the devil-worshippers once located there. The underground “city” was used during periods of secret ceremony, when the proselytes lived there for a time as a part of a dark ritual.

  4. Personal Demon says:

    Leviathan wrote: The underground “city” was used during periods of secret ceremony, when the proselytes lived there for a time as a part of a dark ritual.

    I shudder to imagine what 10¢ buys you at a secret devil-worshiper ceremony.

  5. PD wrote: “I shudder to imagine what 10¢ buys you at a secret devil-worshiper ceremony.”

    Well, the rest of the sign is snapped off; it could have read, “10¢ and your immortal soul!!!! :P

  6. michael says:

    It seems to me that we should speak with the Leavenworth elders
    during the 1800′s secretcy was very vital for many reasons.

  7. missourian says:

    Hmmm…I would like to hear more about this mysterious place. Perhaps an underground network of saloons during prohibition ?

  8. missourian wrote: “Perhaps an underground network of saloons during prohibition ?”

    I wondered about that myself. It’s hard to say at a glance because prices of alcohol were poorly documented during the prohibition era, and therefore can’t be compared directly to the price on the sign (of course, the sign doesn’t necessarily indicate the cost of a drink, either).

  9. Adrian says:

    Supplying and selling alcohol during prohibition?

  10. Historian says:

    Since “experimental” prohibition has existed in Leavenworth since 1881, it would make sense that an underground speakeasy would be established in secrecy.

  11. Historian: That’s an excellent thought! It hadn’t occurred to me that many places were implementing prohibition before it became Federal law.

    • na says:

      I hate to suggest this but they could have been a disease out break and they sick were contained down below.

  12. Spoonie Luv says:

    People have always been lil’ nasties and very secretive… Bet ya’ $10 bucks it was used for saloons, sex, drugs, and alcohol! People dont change, just the times. They were doin’ the same things ya’ll do in your basments!

  13. self says:

    Might not have been all thet secret in its heyday. Keep in mind that until the popularization of the elevator four stories up was about as high as it was practical to build. Adding another level below made more economic sense in a commerical area. Seattle has a whole network of underground stores as well and you can even take a tour there.

  14. self says:

    On a lighter note, I guess one could rule out the slavery connection by checking to see if there is an underground railroad station. lol

  15. self: Nice observation. That’s an option that seems obvious in hindsight. According to the LV article, it may very well have been ordinary businesses that simply got as close to prime real estate as they could: by being right under it.

  16. Abbi says:

    I am 26 years old and my father has lived in leavenworth his whole life. My husband and his friends riding his bike in leavenworth many years ago found these stores under leavenworth. More than likely, it was for a speakeasy during prohabition. There is this place downtown called the landing and this place had three stories and all the underground seemed to be connected with this part of the known downtown. We live in Phoenix now but I always loved the old feeling you got with downtown leavenworth. It would be so great for the city to figure it all out, make it safe to view, and turn it into a museum or something!

  17. Tracker in Florida says:

    I think I read that the business over part of these underground stores is a TITLE COMPANY. Hello, why don’t they research the ownership records of this building and the surrounding buildings to see who might have purchased the “land.”

    The clerk’s office should have old records for building permits, etc. — look what I found with just a minute of google
    searching:

    Letter Press Book, addendum to Thomas Ewing to Dear Sir
    Author: Ewing, Jr., Thomas , 1829-1896
    Date: July 14, 1857

    Accompanying a two page, mostly illegible letter from Thomas Ewing dated Leavenworth, July 14, 1857, was a two page addendum describing and itemizing the cost of building 40 new and reconstructing the roofs on 27 previously built houses in Leavenworth–total cost, $8,990. He also provided an estimate as to rent that could be expected on these properties and on “a two story brick building, such as you spoke of building on the corner of 4 & Delaware.”

    This could be a tourist boom for the town!

  18. Moonland says:

    Lawrence had an underground railroad network until 1860. I would not be surprised if Leavenworth did as well.

    http://skyways.lib.ks.us/genweb/archives/1912/u/underground_railroad.html

  19. Tom Reichling says:

    When I was in Junior High in the late 60′s we would go and hang out in what we called “The Caves” located behind the old Buick Dealership on 5th St across from the old Sexton Funeral Chapel. They were all very much man made and went for what seemed like miles. One morning, the police came and took about 20 of us in and had our parents come and pick us up. Those tunnels went in every direction. After we were rousted out of there, they blocked the entrance. Of course being kids, we never questioned the historical significance of the underground structures, just thought they (and we) were cool.

  20. Don Studeman says:

    The ten cent sign is painted on good quality 7 ply plywood. Plywood was invented in the 1850′s but was not in high use until years later. The cent symbol is a giveaway as to year as mentioned in other posts. You can clearly see floor joists and support columns on concrete floors. What we are looking at is a series of every day basements linked together. It could have been a way of channeling people together for civil defense reasons in the 1950′s or could be used as speak-easys during prohibition. Many times when street projects are done, ground elevations are raised thereby making windows useless so they are boarded up and buried. That is why you sometimes find ancient homes with 12-15 ft ceilings.
    In any case, if you look at the details there are modern water heaters and recent history sliding patio doors etc in the background. The large chunk of wood securing one door is clearly new(er) as the cuts are still blonde and not grey. This is either a publicity stunt or a bunch of goofballs who don’t know what basements are or want to find Al Capone’s vault. Our local liquor store had horseshoe pits in the basement with prices and scoreboards on the walls. Big mystery! Hardly.
    This is paramount to the times when my son is exploring in my old garage and then races into the house and proclaims; look at this weird thing I found! I say I know, I put it there, now put it back!

  21. L.D.T says:

    If i remember correctly, there was a large ammount of prostitution in the area around the turn of the century (Being near Ft. Leavenworth and all, soldiers need love too). In my opinion, protection for prostitution and speak-easy houses.

  22. ruth white says:

    There were blacks living in Leavenworth before the civil war. In fact, my family was freed before the civil war and lived in Easton. Leavenworth was part of the underground railroad

  23. wraveneight says:

    The 10 cents is a poor diversion but it worked as a mile marker. 10 miles to one of the 6 entrances to the underworld that lies in kck

  24. Nadine says:

    Ok, I know we are talking about Levenworth, but does anyone know about the caves underground out by Shawnee Mission Park? They seem to go on forever. What were these used for?

    • kasey says:

      Hello my name is kasey and i have been trying to look up the tunnels under the city of shawnee oklahoma. Is this by any chance the the same ones ure talking about?

  25. ArynMoon says:

    Is there an update on this story? I googled it and found it falls off the radar soon after it appeared.

    • I haven’t heard anything else about it for a while. It seems likely that there have been no new developments, either in explaining the origin of the underground city or in opening it to the public.

      • seekersofthepast says:

        I read about this when it first came out. Kept looking for the follow up that was talked about but never saw anything. So, I did some investigating of my own.

        I think the underground railroad theory can be disregarded. It really makes no sense. Entire underground towns were not built to accommodate slaves running for freedom. At least none that I have ever come across.

        Look up Eureka Springs underground and I think you will find the answer. There, the town was built but they had constant problems with flooding. Walls were built and the streets were elevated. Walkways remained between the buildings and the walls for the elevated streets. Eventually, the buildings became the “basements” for additions built on top and later the walkway areas where covered over with sidewalks, etc…effectively leaving an “underground town” of original storefronts that became basements. Given this part of Leavenworth’s proximity to the river, it stands to reason there has been flooding from the beginning. My guess is, the underground part used to be street level and at some point, the streets were elevated to help alleviate the flooding issue.

  26. Warjer says:

    The tunnels of Leavenworth have always been a guarded secret for the area. A few people have explored them, but most of the entrances have been sealed off. There is an extensive network of tunnels that runs all the way to Kansas City MO, the report only shows a very small part of what is in the tunnels. Near the Leavenworth VA there is a lake, and those that have explored that area say there is something rather large swimming around in it. There is also a large hole in the floor of the tunnel, but I don’t know that anyone has checked to see how deep it is. There are numerous dead-end run offs in the tunnels, and several large areas that could work for gathering groups of people.
    The theory is that the tunnels were made as part of the underground railroad to bring slaves over from Missouri to Kansas, and the city aspect of it was added later.

  27. Barbara Johncox says:

    I’m a 70-year-old native of Leavenworth, Kansas, and my grandfather, who was a longtime resident of Leavenworth, often talked about how the town was part of the underground railway. I remember how we kids used to nose about the caves behind the Buick dealership. We were too scared to go in, and that is probably a good thing. I remember when the old Planter’s Hotel stood on the Esplanade, and it was common knowledge that there were many caves underneath it where escaped slaves from Missouri were held. Remember, Kansas was a free state. According to my grandfather and my Kansas History teacher, who was 75 when I was in school, the Planter’s Hotel was owned by slave-holders from the tobacco farms in Missouri. Escaped slaves were held in the Planter’s Hotel cave until their Missouri owners came to get them–but the slaves kept disappearing from the caves, spirited away to freedom by Leavenworth citizens, no doubt through the network of tunnels. That still doesn’t fully explain the underground “city,” but it is not unlikely that it was part of the underground railway. Some of the older buildings in Leavenworth have basements that open into the “city,” which means that the tunnels are not necessarily in their original, untouched condition, thus it is probably impossible to infer exactly what the tunnels were used for without reliable evidence.

  28. Bear says:

    Underground Railroad was not really underground. Anyone who knew history knew that. It was not a Rail Road that helped slaves escape. It was a path from place to place where Whites with money who were against slavery let slaves sleep in their barn and basements and helped them get north.

    Being that there are parts to an old still down there. I would bet it went back to Prohibition.

    Also take into account that Leavenworth was settled mostly by Irish and Germans. Specifically Masons.

    Both Irish and Germans like Hidden Areas they can meet. Then take into account if they were Masons. Think about who owns most of Down Town, currently, and which families have owned downtown for nearly 200 Years. Ask the Masons.

  29. Claire says:

    It seems like using it during prohibition and slavery is possible. But…since there really wasn’t much there until Ft. Leavenworth was established, could it have been used as military housing? Kind of an elaborate “safe room”? Having an underground city with supplies, stores, resources, housing, etc. would have created a very effective element of surprise. It would have been pretty difficult to destroy a city that they didn’t know existed. It would have been a good place to hide and protect their families, homes, businesses, resources, leaders, etc. Kind of like the network of buildings under Washington DC that was designed to protect the president and other important leaders in case the US was attacked so that our government could survive and re-build according to what we had already established.

  30. Claire says:

    One of the rooms that was described as “some sort of torture chamber” looked like it could have been a doctor’s office. Influenza, cholera, measles, mumps, chicken pox, etc. created as much panic if not more than some of the epidemics we’ve seen recently. Maybe they used it to protect themselves or quarantine people who were already sick.

  31. Umbriel says:

    I think Seeker of the Past’s explanation, above, hits it right on the nose. There seem to be two kinds of “underground city” (as distinguished from cruder tunnel complexes) in the world — Those excavated for protection from the elements (e.g., Montreal and Moose Jaw, Canada, and Rockefeller Center, NY) and those left behind after street levels were raised (e.g., Seattle, WA and Portland, OR).

    This seems likely to be the latter, with Tracker in Florida’s above find fixing the date at 1857. In many places, such “substreets” continue to be used for some time after being sealed off, for shelter from the elements or from prying eyes. So all of the alleged uses above, from crime to the underground railroad (to satanic/Lovecraftian cults, perhaps?) may well have been correct at various times.

  32. MaryLu says:

    Please do not also forget the fact that the Mormon Battalion had one of their posts there at Ft. Leavenowrth. Perhaps the underground network was left over from their “running from the law” days. I’m not saying that to be unkind, so do not flame me, I just know that they didn’t always stand in favor with the Federal government, so an underground area to hold commerce and live would be a natural solution.
    Although, the commenter above who mentioned flooding is probably the most correct. We lived there during the flood of 1993 and it would not surprise me if the entire town had been elevated and built up, so to speak.
    Look at the “tells” in Egypt. Entire civilazations were built right on top of each other.

  33. ADP says:

    Hey, maybe if everyone could mark locations of where they know tunnel entrances to be (or were), we could figure out just how big this underground city is! Wikimapia would be the perfect tool for this! http://wikimapia.org/#lat=39.3148164&lon=-94.9136111&z=19&l=0&m=b

  34. dakota says:

    i grew up in leavenworth. ive been in a system of caves that the entrance to is located about three or four miles from downtown. we journeyed in, heading towards downtown. but it became very cold and the mud too deep to continue. we set a fire. a couple hours later walking through downtown leaveworth we witnessed smoke coming from manholes on the recently built walking path about on block from the main drag (spruce st.) in downtown leaveworth. this would lead me to believe one could access said underground city through the manhole located on the three mile creek walking path. go for it.

  35. lawrence says:

    my family has owned a business in downtown leavenworth since 1855. i would think these area;s were used during prohibition, or just common building’s that were buried. but i will ask my aunt and get to the “bottom” of this if possible! will repost soon

  36. Nickel says:

    Lawrence have you found out anything

  37. Dog Lover says:

    http://skyways.lib.ks.us/genweb/leavenwo/library/CATACOMB.htm

    I’m not sure if this is the same area but it was interesting.

  38. Stu Nicholson says:

    If you want to covertly accommodate slaves you don’t embark on a major civil engineering project. Neither do you for establishing a speakeasy. People may well notice hundreds of builders/navies and tons of earth being removed.

    Equally Irish Freemasons are unlikely to have commissioned it. The Irish migrants were almost exclusively Catholic; Catholics are prevented by the church from joining the Freemasons.

    This won’t have been dug down; it will have been built up. In an area prone to flooding the obviouse explaination would be building up to avoid the threat.

  39. eddie says:

    i think i can add to this convo.

    when i was a kid, around 1987 we went into the caves by the dealership. by then it was filled with pseudo satan worship graffitti. we were busted by cops who stated it was part of the underground railroad. years later i heard they dynamited the entrance down.

    also of note that could add to the story:

    when i was a kid, there were also nike missile silos that were empty at the back of the base. one of my friends in school, was busted in them by the mp’s & his dad was a full bird colonel & i still remember how beet red his dad’s face was when he had to pick him up from school. we never heard from him again as he was sent to military boarding school.

    when i was in high school, during construction on base, workers discovered a burried cache of rifles dating from before the civil war during the bleeding kansas days. maybe when leavenworth was pro slavery & lawrence was anti slavery & those two towns were at each others throats. dont forget famous abolitionist visited leavenworth on several occcasions.

    during the bleeding kansas days, i remember something about abraham lincoln stopping in leavenworth for an election speech or anti slavery speech. to commemorate the occasion, either he supplied or the town purchased the miniature statue of liberty that sits in from of the old government building downtown. maybe the lincoln connection adds validity to the underground railroad story.

  40. Terrell says:

    I am from Missouri and spent my childhood around stillings mo. (Little town directly across from Leavenworth on Missouri side. I was told a story about how slaves got from Missouri side to Leavenworth side when I was young. I didn’t know much of anything at the time about Underground Railroad in Leavenworth or even why slaves wanted to cross. Only told about a tunnel under Missouri River from Leavenworth to Missouri side. I was told it came out in 2 diffrent places in Leavenworth. I was told closer to Leavenworth side under river there was a small room in tunnel. You would enter tunnel on Missouri side from small trap door with ladder straight down about 10ft to tunnel floor. From there you walked till you came to small room that branched off 2 diffrent directions. One branch took you to a basement of a house on kansas side. Other took you to a exit kinda like Missouri side not far from mouth of little creek coming out of Leavenworth dumping in the river. I actually talked to old timer who’s family has lived in area many generations. He said few things about this mystery tunnel then shut up. He said I will never tell u boys where exactly the entrance is (on Missouri side) cuz you’ll go get yourself killed in it and I won’t live with that on me. But asked here and there from him and couple other old timers.. (Who all went to school and have known landowner where I believe (my hypothesis) where the Missouri entrance is……. Most all there lives. So I took these little hints I got from these old timers and knowing they grew up with landowner on Missouri side across from Leavenworth….. Which tells me landowner knows where it is….. And landowner farms row crops…… Has his own bulldozers which he pushes down as much of everything he can to create more acreage and easier for bigger equipment to plant straight rows of crops and here is my location I think Missouri entrance is. If you follow the Missouri levee south from the bridge (you can follow and see clearly on google earth) about a mile or mabe little more you will see little gravel road from stillings to levee (river). There will be a concrete pad of old foundation right next to little gravel road and levee there. From there keep going south on levee mabe half mile (give or take). By levee in field there is a old junk barn there by itself. I been in barn many years ago and it only had some old junk hay worth nothing in it. When I was there years ago there was a old house that set there to on levee side of barn. I wonder often if entrance is in that old pointless barn?!!!!!!! Why has owner not cleared all that out, piled up and burned old piled up trees and farm straight thru there like he has everywhere else on his land???????? And even more…….. Why would he bulldoze old house down (that I went in) and not touch a junk barn that has a few decade old rotten square bales of rotten hay in it. And barn is not usable. It’s in bad shape. And if u follow google earth from barn straight across river to Leavenworth side your not far from creek that dumps into river. And I explored caves that once were there on Leavenworth side as a kid to. Remember parking by big steel structure and walking south down railroad tracks a bit then up bluff into caves carved out. I do wonder just by looking at Google earth when u follow barn directly across to Leavenworth side not far from bank of river I see what looks like a white steel lid just by itself with nothing near it. Can anyone tell me what that is? Mabe a lid sealing off something? Or mabe I’m way off and it’s just something else. Ever since I herd a story about a tunnel under river right in that direct area of my old stompen grounds I’ve wondered and asked, listened and attempted to put a puzzle of what if together in my head for about 15 years now. And now in more recent times learning about Underground Railroad in Leavenworth has got my curiosity going again. After reading some of your comments and stories I just simply wanted to share my wonders, thoughts, info I’ve been told, why I think what might be and pure excitement of a mystery of a possible tunnel under the mighty mo river right in our backyards. Cool stuff!

  41. Terrell says:

    I’m 5th generation from area on Missouri side so that’s how I kinda asked some old timers about it. I kinda know people and how they and there family’s are connected lol. Don’t claim to be right on anything but I haven’t added anything to my story or thoughts to make it better. Just raw info from my head to yours :)

  42. JHunt says:

    My family settled the original fort. As a kid I played in those caves as well, back in the mid-seventies. The caves and tunnels were multi-purpose according to the much older members of my family. Underground Rail Road, yes, but smuggling of all sorts as well.

    In addition, many of the caves were used for commercial purposes. My family did ice cutting in the winters and stored the ice in the caves beneath the city. I had a great Uncle who used the sparkling waters from the caves to produce root beer, which may have been in response to prohibition. The root beer itself was produced in the cave as the waters would loose their fizz rapidly if not bottled immediately.

    • Robert Hamel says:

      I also was born and raised in area I believe the caves might have something to do with a secret society called nights of the golden circle I’ve traced the origins of that group and I think there connected to a possible nation wide network of underground tunnels and also have a good reason to believe a person could find treasure hidden before the United States became a country

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