Passageway to history

May 09, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Bob Bennett leaned over in the cramped excavated area of the General Adam Stephen House's basement to look down the roughly 15-foot-deep hole.

The hole looked like something the creature from the movie "Tremors" might have dug in a few seconds.

In actuality, it has taken a local group of spelunkers two years to dig out the back of the basement and then the smaller hole. They would work for a day, three to four times a year.

This particular tunnel was available for public view for the first time Saturday, which was General Adam Stephen Day, said Keith Hammersla, curator of the house and the nearby Triple Brick Museum. Stephen founded Martinsburg 226 years ago.


Members of Tri-State Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society, had tried excavating other areas of the basement before to reach the fabled tunnels that ran under the east side of Martinsburg, according to Hammersla and Grotto members.

Then at the 2002 Stephen Day celebration, two different people at different times reported being in the tunnels as youths and remembered the location of the entrance, Hammersla said.

The entrance was under the kitchen, but under a stairway that had been moved since the tunnels were filled in, Bennett told a tour group.

Stephen might have had his home built over an entrance to the tunnel system, which connected natural caverns and tunnels, so he had an escape route, Hammersla said.

The tunnel was filled in during the 1940s and 1950s as homeowners in the area became concerned about their potential liability and the safety of children playing in the tunnels, Hammersla said. Children sometimes would run up the tunnels into peoples' homes, scaring them, he said.

Samantha Shipway, 12, of Martinsburg, found the excavated tunnel entryways fascinating, saying it was like the book she read recently - "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

Janis Ambrose, 43, of Martinsburg, was surprised the tunnel hadn't been further excavated, while Dave Shamburg, 53, of Hedgesville, W.Va., said he hadn't expected the excavation to be that big.

The tunnel entrance under Stephen's house is about 4 1/2 feet wide at the top and about 3 feet wide at the bottom, Bennett said.

Grotto members used an electric hammer drill to dig through the tough clay, Bennett said. They then used a five-gallon bucket on a rope to carry the clay and dirt out, removing about eight bucketsfull an hour, he said.

In the basement of a house across the railroad tracks on East King Street, the group had dug as far as approximately 43 feet below ground level, with the last 12 feet down a hole 2 feet in diameter, Grotto member J.C. Fisher said.

To get that dirt out, someone stood in the hole with a post-hole digger and carefully pulled the digger, which contains a couple of handfuls of dirt at a time, to shoulder level to empty into a bucket.

The space is so tight that often some of the dirt falls right back into the hole, Fisher said.

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