Historian details what ‘lies beneath’ the city of Winston-Salem (and what doesn’t)

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In the day-to-day rush to get to where we need to be, it’s rare that someone stops to think about what’s beneath their favorite routes. But, not long ago, Forsyth County Public Library North Carolina Room Historian Fam Brownlee realized people were curious about what’s below Winston-Salem. He also realized he didn’t have the answers they were seeking, so he started looking into it.

“We’ve dug, and dug, and dug and I’m not talking about digging in the ground,” Brownlee said.

His first thought was to look for things which he’s obsessed over for most of his career; maps.

“I love maps,” he said.

But the problem is, of all the maps Brownlee has collected, none of them show any underground structures or tunnels.

“You would think that the city, somewhere, would have diagrams of all that. I mean someone had to draw all that out and build it,” he said. “We’ve never found anything. Anything at all.”

Brownlee started asking questions and soon came across myths and rumors. Some of what he learned was able to be corroborated and some debunked.

One of the most well-known tales is that there’s a tunnel running from Reynolda House to downtown. Although Brownlee says there are in fact tunnels on the Reynolda House property, a tunnel to downtown isn’t possible.

“People have no idea what it would cost to build such a thing,” Brownlee joked. “Even the Reynolds didn’t have that kind of money.”

Brownlee detailed tunnels which used to be beneath RJ Reynolds property downtown, but modern-day officials say there are no maps showing such infrastructure, adding that any tunnels they have come across have likely been filled.

In 1974, when the courthouse was being built, Brownlee says crews started to uncover what appeared to be arches downtown.

“People thought, ‘Whoa, these were entrances to tunnels,’” he said.

However, it was later discovered that the arches were in fact supports, built to reinforce soft spots along the route of the streetcar system in 1890.

“They built these arch supports along Liberty and along 4th and that was the streetcar, ran those two streets,” he said. “So, there’s no mystery there.”

Brownlee maintains that there are more tunnels downtown, but again, the city says they don’t have maps of these, adding that they likely wouldn’t be public record for safety reasons.

“Utility tunnels, and some of those are easily walkable,” Brownlee said.

One downtown tunnel that’s still in use today goes from the Benton Convention Center to the Embassy Suites. The tunnel is used as a pedestrian tunnel and runs under Fifth Street. Around the corner, there’s another tunnel that goes under Cherry Street, but it’s been blocked off on one end.

One of the most well-known tunnels is the one running under Northwest Boulevard, which is still used by Reynolds High School students.

Near Sherwood Forest Elementary School, there’s a small tunnel running under Silas Creek Parkway toward Yorkshire Road. There are also tunnels below Wake Forest University.

There are also some tunnels city officials say are lesser-known but could also prove dangerous. Just outside of downtown, there is an arch that was built in 1880, above a tunnel designed to allow water to flow through. You can get inside, and graffiti in the tunnel is evidence that people have. However, officials warn that entering these old Moravian tunnels could result in oxygen loss.

“People are afraid of underground,” Brownlee said. “They really are.”

There is a new tunnel being built near BB&T Ballpark, as part of the Business 40 Project, near Peters Creek Parkway. It will allow people to cross under Peters Creek to get to and from the ballpark without having to cross the parkway.

Brownlee also detailed the discovery of some caves in the city, including one near where he grew up in Ardmore. He also says there used to be some caves along Peters Creek Parkway, where people once believed three witches lived. One story regarding the witches says that George Washington was told of them when he visited Salem in 1791.

“The people told him, ‘You know, we’ve got these caves over here on Peters Creek and there’s witches living in them,’” Brownlee chuckled. “Three witches. There’s always three witches.”

All told, there are certainly more tunnels throughout the city. City officials believe they will continue to find entrances, but they will likely be closed off.

“I always like to say it’s out there somewhere,” Brownlee said, of the maps he’s searched for over a span he estimates equates to several days. “I just wish something would pop up.”

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