By Joe Stumpe
While promoting Wicked Wichita, my book on the city’s early criminal history, I’ve been asked one question more than any other. And no it’s not : “will there be a sequel?”
The question I get is: Is there anything in it about tunnels?
At the risk of hurting sales, the answer is no, for the simple reason that my research didn’t turn up any. At least not the two tunnels that many Wichitans believe exist.
One of these is an underground passageway rumored to run from the Broadview Hotel on the Arkansas River’s east bank to the Delano neighborhood on its west bank. The other purportedly stretches from the Broadview under Douglas Avenue to the former site of the Forum auditorium, where Century II currently sits.
Local lore has it that both were used by bootleggers to move liquor during the years Kansas’ Prohibition law was in effect (1881 to 1948). So many people believe this that I decided to dig a little deeper, so to speak.
Jami Frazier Tracy, curator of collections at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, told me she’d “heard about them, but I’ve never been convinced they actually existed.”
Tunnels under the Arkansas River “seems ridiculous to me,” Frazer said “The river’s not that wide. It would be easier to walk across, or go in a canoe.”
Scott Ragatz, general manager of the Broadview, has also heard tales of shenanigans down below. “It was rumored there was a tunnel from here to Delano where they used to run the liquor,” he said. “The story goes that there was a shoeshine boy on the other side” somehow involved.
At one time, Ragatz said, there “appeared to be something like a tunnel” on the west side of the hotel’s basement, which faces the river. “I seem to remember it was a few feet deep, probably seven feet deep, before being filled in with cinder block and dirt.” Ragatz couldn’t recall anything like it on the south and east sides, which face Century II, and said much of the basement has been filled in today.
Joe Pajor, deputy director of the city’s Department of Public Works & Utilities, said the Forum, which was torn down in 1965, shared “close to the same footprint” as Century II and he’s been “through every square foot of Century II” without seeing evidence of a tunnel.
Pajor was even more definitive about the rumored tunnel under the river. While making improvments to the bike path along the river’s east side, the city “did an awful lot of excavation and didn’t come across any tunnels,” he said.
Wichita does in fact have tunnels, though. There is one that runs from City Hall to the county courthouse. Putting the question to my friends, my friends on the Wichita History From My Perspective Facebook page, produced first hand accounts of tunnels at the old Boeing, Mt. Carmel Academy and St. Joseph Hospital properties, but only rumors when it came to the two supposedly connected to the Broadview.
So I, like Pajor, consider the tunnels “a great subject for urban legends.” Still, I don’t want to dig myself in too deep on this topic. If you’ve got credible information about tunnels, let’s uncover the truth once and for all.
Part of me is a little perturbed at Fran Kentling, my predecessor in this job who died last month. She assured me she’d stick around to help out as long as needed. Since she was still helping copyedit the active age until about two and a half weeks before her death, she was and is obviously still needed.
The truth is, Fran devoted a good portion of her later years to making sure this newspaper survived before hiring me as her successor a year ago and making the transition unbelievably smooth. I guess she more than held up her end of the bargain.
You can read more about Fran in her obituary beginning on Page 1. If there’s a big newsroom up in the sky, I’m sure she’s up there, making sure facts are checked, deadlines are met and commas are in the right places.
At right is another rememberance of Fran, written in the form of a letter, from her fellow active age board member Susan Howell.
Reach Joe Stumpe at firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t remember the first time we met but I know it was at The Wichita Eagle in the mid-80s. You were newsroom; I was technology. Why we even first spoke is lost in history. I do know for 40 years you influenced me and helped me, and I loved having you as my friend. My memories are full of newspaper stories, including saving the one that is my favorite now, the active age, and remembrances of poker games (you were good at it) and evenings of the two of us solving problems, sharing ideas over wine and fine food. I will miss you, dear friend; the memories are full and many. Thank you.