Mysterious elaborate tunnels discovered under Florida city have historians stumped

The discovery of century-old tunnels on the west coast of Florida has sparked many theories but no concrete answers for historians.

Demolition work by crews in Tampa revealed another opening in what is considered a mysterious network of underground tunnels buried beneath the historic Ybor City, Fox13 News reported.

“Clearly we have tunnels. There’s no question about it. We’ve broken through and we’ve seen them,”architect Gerry Curts said Wednesday as he described one of the tunnels near the Old Florida Brewery near East 6th Ave. and Noccio Parkway.

Demoloition by developers Daryl Shaw and Joe Capitano, who have planned an office building on the site, recently revealed a new opening to the tunnels. Shaw confirmed the existence of the tunnels to Fox 13 News and indicated that they will strive to preserve them, potentially constructing a glass floor to showcase the tunnels in the new building.

“I’m not sure how important it is to preserve the tunnels,” Curts said, “but I think it’s important to recognize they existed.”

Dr. Gary Mormino, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida, called the perplexing underground system in the National Historic Landmark District a “great riddle.”

Many theories have emerged as to the use and origin of the web of tunnels, as Fox 13 News reported that patterns in the brick walls of a basement under a nearby century-old building indicate where tunnels were closed years ago.

An old city map shared by Curts reveal a tunnel running from Ybor City toward Port Tampa Bay.

According to Fox13:

Questions remain about who constructed the tunnels and why. Curts and Mormino say the job would have been so large that city leaders must have been involved. Curts says the tunnels are too large — up to 7 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide — and the floors too flat to have been for sewage.

Some have speculated that the tunnels were used by the Mafia or by bootleggers during prohibition.

However, Mormino and Curts believe public corruption in Tampa in the early to mid-1900s would have allowed organized crime to operate without the need of an elaborate tunnel system.

 

Suggestions that the tunnels were used during prohibition to smuggle alcohol were also dismissed by Mormino.

“Everyone was selling bootleg whiskey in Tampa at that point. Why would you need to go to the expense of building a tunnel? It makes no sense,” he said, while speculating if the tunnels were used in the transportation of Chinese prostitutes from Cuba to the Port of Tampa to Ybor City in the early 1900s,

“The tunnels of Ybor City represent one of the great riddles and mysteries,” Mormino said.

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Frieda Powers

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