Lakewood In The Civil War Underground Railroad Tunnels In Lakewood?

Stone house at Detroit and Summit

The Lakewood Historical Society continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with a series of articles focused on Rockport Township (now Lakewood) during that time.

For years, stories of underground railroad tunnels in Lakewood have been told. While there were certainly people involved in the anti-slavery movement in Rockport (now Lakewood), there is very little evidence that supports the tunnel idea. But there is reason for the confusion. There were tunnels in Lakewood, but they were culverts, sewer lines, or passages used by swimmers from the large lakefront estates.

Perhaps the most well-known tunnel was “discovered” in the early 1900s by a group of children at the northeast corner of Detroit and Summit. Written about in a 1934 Plain Dealer article titled “Queer old Tunnel Mystifies Lakewood,” the fifty-foot-long tunnel led from a stone house and “was not large: perhaps less than 30 inches square. Even children found it cramped and stuffy quarters.  But a man could crawl through it. The sides were of large cobblestones of “hardheads.” Sandstone slabs two or three inches thick formed the roof. The floor was natural soil.”  The boys discovered the tunnel when their dog disappeared into a hole covered by a clump of bushes. The author, writing thirty years later, speculated the tunnel was built for the underground railroad. Several important facts challenge this notion.

First, activity for the underground railroad was neither underground nor on a railroad. Underground referred to the covert nature of the activities and “railroad” referred to the terminology people used when discussing the activities (i.e. stations, conductors, passengers). It was an informal network of secret routes and safe havens used by nineteenth century slaves to escape to free states and Canada with the help of allies who were sympathetic to their cause. While some traveled by train or boat, most escaping slaves traveled on foot or by wagon. Between 1850 and 1860, about one thousand slaves escaped each year. If there were underground railroad routes through Lakewood, it is unlikely that people would have travelled through a small, dark tunnel that ran from Detroit Avenue to the lake shore when foot travel through private farms and woods would have been possible.

Second, the description of the tunnel matches those of early culverts found throughout the city. When the plank road was completed along Detroit Avenue in 1848, ditches were dug along the sides to drain water from the road and under the road to help divert small streams that ran north to the lake. As the city grew, these open ditches were replaced with buried culverts. Early Lakewood historian Eric Lindstrom described Summit Avenue at this time as “nothing more than a lane with a ditch on the western side, and a creek on the other side running from the Nickel Plate Railway north to the lake.”  It is likely this creek was later turned into a culvert and even later mistaken for an Underground Railroad tunnel.

William Corrigan, current Engineer for the City of Lakewood, notes that he has seen several of these old culverts throughout Lakewood. He states these culverts are lined with cobblestones and roofed with sandstone slabs, much like the tunnel described in the 1934 Plain Dealer article. Mr. Corrigan further suggests the Summit tunnel probably had a cobblestone floor that had been covered by years of dirt and silt (making the earthen floor seen by the boys). As further examples, Mr. Corrigan mentioned two culverts he has seen in Lakewood, one near Saint Edward High School and the other north of that area along Madison Avenue. These two culverts helped to divert the stream that ran through what was the original Nicholson family farm.

Third, it was common for nineteenth century homes to be built over or near springs or small streams to provide a good source of water for the household. These springs or streams could also be diverted using small culverts or cisterns so that the homeowners could access them from inside their homes. The stone house mentioned in the 1934 article is shown on maps as early as 1858 and was probably built several decades before that. There was no city-wide water system in the area at the time, so a diverted or culverted stream would have been a logical addition to the home.

And fourth, the current cliff height at the end of Summit Avenue is forty feet. While that height may have changed slightly over the years, it is illogical to expect escaping slaves to crawl through a thirty inch tunnel for 3,800 feet only to end up at the top of a high cliff, especially when there is much easier access to the lake in Cleveland or further west.

Taken together, these four points suggest that the tunnel discovered by the young boys was, in fact, an old culvert and not a passageway for the underground railroad. Our next article will focus on other tunnels found in Lakewood.

2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War-an appropriate time for the Lakewood Historical Society to consider Rockport Township’s participation in the war. For more information on Lakewood’s fascinating history, go to

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Volume 7, Issue 20, Posted 9:51 AM, 10.05.2011