Under Our Noses: Savannah's tunnels

Published: Jul. 26, 2011 at 4:22 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Mystery is in Savannah's air. And just below the city's surface as well.

"Many of us walk through Savannah,'' says Elijah Thomas, a tour guide at the Pirates' House Restaurant, "and have no idea what's actually underneath our feet.''

That's because "underground savannah'' is not just some counter-culture. It's also the many subterranean mysteries held in centuries-old tunnels that few here have actually seen and hardly any fully understand.

"Nobody does,'' said Joan Altmeyer, of Oglethorpe Tours. "Because there's simply no records of it. All of it is speculation.''

Altmeyer has been familiarizing people with the tunnel adjacent to the old Candler Hospital since Oglethorpe Tours took possession of it two years ago, taking groups into the hidden passageway that was once the hospital's morgue.

Earlier in the 1800s, though, when the hospital served Savannah's indigent, the tunnel beneath it fulfilled more secretive purposes as a site of autopsies, which were illegal at the time.

"Prior to it being Candler Hospital, any physician that went in that hospital to treat patients did not get paid for their services but on the contrary had to pay for the right and the privilege to go inside the front door,'' said Altmeter. "So the benefit was to have a steady supply of unclaimed cadavers and a secret place like this to work on them.''

Just across town, equally covert and even more scurrilous work took place in tunnels underneath the old pirate hangout that is now the Pirates' House.

"They actually shanghaied many people who came into this establishment,'' said Thomas. "Everyone that came into the building, unfortunately didn't leave the way they came in. They would unfortunately be taken through the rum cellar into a tunnel and out to sea.''

And those weren't even the least fortunate people who might have found their way into several of the tunnels under much of Savannah's Historic District.

"Another tunnel,'' said Thomas, "actually went out to a cemetery that was built in the early 1800s, about 1820, when the epidemic yellow fever struck."

"If an epidemic broke out,'' added Altmeyer, "20 percent, 25 percent of our population could easily die.''

Even more might have fled the city if there weren't tunnels to surreptitiously transport the dead and dying.

"If you leave behind a vacant city, the city is at risk for a whole lot of crime, just like New Orleans had been subjected to after Hurricane Katrina,'' said Altmeyer. "So it was in the city's best interest to keep Savannah's population in the dark about an epidemic when it broke out.''

And centuries later, Savannah is largely still in the dark about the history of its hidden tunnels.

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