An Exploration of the Spa City’s Underground Tunnels
By Richard Ledbetter
Photos courtesy of Max Sestili, Stormwater Manager for the City of Hot Springs
Perhaps one of the most enduring myths of downtown Hot Springs is the mile and a quarter length of tunnel dying directly beneath Central Avenue, containing the ages old watercourse of Hot Springs Creek. Legend holds the dark, twisting labyrinth was the haunt of infamous gangsters, where shrouds of swirling mist and soaring temperatures stir visions of Hades.
The headwaters of the stream are found up Park Avenue, beginning with North Mountain’s watershed. It enters a tunnel near Amber Street and soon adds to its measure by confluence with Whittington Creek, which originates to the west, near the foot of Black Snake Road and carries run-off from Sugarloaf and West Mountains. Whittington Creek enters another branch of the tunnel and empties into Hot Springs Creek beneath the fountain at the juncture of Park and Whittington Avenues. Their combined flow continues south under Central in front of the Arlington Hotel and Bathhouse Row, eventually reemerging next to the old Iron Mountain train depot on Broadway Terrace.
Before 1883, Hot Springs Creek ran along the valley floor in the open air. In those earlier times, thoroughfares lined the tumbling shoals with several bridges crossing at intervals along its course. The obvious problem was how the watercourse served as an open sewer for all the hotels, restaurants, and spas lining its banks, lending an all too negative connotation to the term “Vapor Valley.”
In 1882, federal funds were appropriated to cover Hot Springs Creek. The original 3500-foot section of stone archway over the tributary from Whittington to near Malvern Ave. was completed in 1884. Other sections up Park and Fountain were later added, creating the mysterious vaulted underworldonemaystillfindtoday.
Severe floods throughout the 20th century caused considerable damage to downtown. In 1990, four feet of water rushed down Central Ave. sweeping away automobiles and inundating businesses. Full to overflowing, Army Corp of Engineers Capt. Thomas Handbury’s 1882 original tunnel designproveditcouldsurvivetheravagesof time as well as the occasional raging flood.
A hike into the dark nether-regions is not only a journey back in time where the moss covered, time-smoothed stones of an ancient waterway are preserved, but also a tour of wondrous engineering feats. The meticulously fitted, overarching two- foot by four-foot hand cut stones remind one of a Roman aqueduct. Fog fills the heavy air so thick one can’t see more than twenty-feet ahead as temperatures climb well above 100 degrees. Dark as a tomb, the only reassurance offered in the pitch black comes from occasional natural light filtering through intermittent storm drains on the street above, while the sounds of water rushing beneath your feet and cars roaring overhead reverberate down the 17-foot-wide by 14-foot-tall stone corridor.
Max Sestili, Stormwater Manager for the City of Hot Springs, is a self-proclaimed expert on the tunnels.
“It’s one of my favorite historical features of the city. The craftsmanship and stonework in the original archway is both exceptional and enduring,” says Sestili.
“When I came to work here, it had been neglected for a very long time… We used grant [money] to remove old unused pipes and supports. We patched gaps and undercuts and re-mortised between the stonework where it had eroded over time. We also added more storm drain openings and widened others. We uncovered five original drain inlets up Park Avenue to accept more runoff. We believe we’ve made a dramatic increase in conveyance capacity but we haven’t had an event like ’90 since maintenance work. We have to begin setting aside funding to do annual maintenance on the tunnel. It’s one of those ‘out of sight out of mind’ things that deserves more attention,” he continued.
Adventurous explorers occasionally ask Sestili to lead small walking/wading tours through the dim underworld. Guiding one group during the height of summer, it got so hot near the springs they had to cut their trip short and exit onto Central Avenue. “A manhole cover pops open and 8 people crawl out covered in sweat and creek water. We sat around on benches for half an hour panting and fanning while tourists strolled by in amazement.” As for what permission is required to enter the tunnel, he explained, “You’re supposed to secure a permit from the fire department and make them aware when you expect to enter and exit so their Confined Space Rescue Team can be on standby.” Referencing an urban legend associated with the underground creek, Sestili said, “There’s a story about a couple of white water paddlers who made the run through the tunnel in kayaks.” Though not confirmed, given the mindset of many wild-water enthusiasts, it seems all too probable.
Setili did clear up one legend though – Whether or not Al Capone had an escape passage that supposedly exited the former Southern Club illegal casino (where Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum stands today), passed through the creek tunnel and led into the basement of the Arlington Hotel on the opposite side of Central. The Arlington was Capone’s local base of operations where he engaged the entire fourth floor for his entourage. “I’ve been all through the creek several times and never seen any evidence of an escape tunnel,” Sestili said. “If you find one let me know.”
Former Gangster Museum interpreter Bobby Graham echoed that denial with an emphatic “No!” and owner of the historic Ohio Club, Mike Petty agreed with Graham, saying, “Capone owned this town in the 1920’s and early ‘30’s. He had no need for a hidden passageway. He walked the streets with impunity.”
Yet, in Madame Tussaud’s basement there exists a public utility corridor running parallel to the creek tunnel. This is claimed as the entrance to the rumored escape route but did not and does not open into the creek tunnel. Neither is any such access known to exist in the Arlington across Central. Despite the secret passage being (so far) unfound, there is still great history to explore. Just ask Anthony Taylor, owner of the 1895 vintage high-rise Dugan Stewart Building next door to Tussaud’s. Descending into the basement, down the ornate wooden staircase, one can find remnants of Al Capone’s subterranean bowling alley. Being below ground, it was completely submerged and severely damaged during the flood of ‘90 but there remains a hand-painted scoreboard on the walls with Capone’s popular alias “Frank Snodgrass” clearly printed in large, red letters. There’s also an antique elevator with a wrought-iron gate sitting abandoned amidst the ruins.
With flashlights pointed toward shadowy corners, one might see the same large public utility tunnel sharing an adjoining wall with the former Southern Club. This, it would appear, could well be the long spoke of escape exit leading from the Southern’s basement into the neighboring five-story apartment/office building. Al Capone or anyone else wishing to quickly depart the Southern’s illegal operation in the face of a surprise raid, could flee one flight down, pass into the adjoining structure, quickly board an attended elevator and disappear amidst the myriad offices, apartments, hotels and ballrooms housed in the twin wings of its historic, multi-story, brick construction.
So next time you stroll along Bathhouse Row, peer into a curbside storm grate and take notice of the steaming waters ever gurgling beneath your feet. And if you listen closely, you may even hear the crack of bowling pins, slot machine bells, raucous laughter, and the echo of footfalls splashing down the corridor of time. And remember an entirely different world from the past that occupied the same space where you today stand.