It has long been rumored that there once was a vast network of secret tunnels under Asheville, NC. Legends of sunless bootlegger routes, abandoned subway tunnels, and hidden passages beneath the Masonic temple are hinted at by locals, bartenders, and Haunted Asheville tour guides alike. Local historians dispute how extensive the secret tunnels were and what they were used for, but their existence can be confirmed with a trip to the North Carolina Room at Pack Library in downtown Asheville. Many of the pictures in this article were graciously provided by their collection of local historical documents.
A Secret Passage Beneath the Masonic Temple?
Since its construction in 1915, there have been rumors of a secret tunnel beneath Asheville’s Masonic Temple. Last year paranormal investigator Joshua P. Warren set out to find it. He investigated the basement of the temple using tiny cameras and thermal sensors to seek out air-temperature differences that would indicate a tunnel. He thinks he may have found what he is looking for. Under an abnormally uneven section of flooring in a chamber where the Freemasons once had their own private bowling alley. To explore further would require an archaeological dig into the foundation of the Masonic Temple, which has so far denied the request.
Local historian Vance Pollock shares Warren’s fascination with underground Asheville, but says he remains skeptical about the exaggerated stories. “I have never seen or read of any plans for a subway, only contemporary rumors. It may have been mentioned or proposed at some point, I just haven’t seen the evidence.”
The Mysterious Door Under Pack’s Tavern
Pollock says that while there isn’t sufficient evidence for a series of interconnected secret tunnels, there is plenty of physical proof and photographic evidence of multiple underground chambers and rooms across Asheville’s downtown area.
Local news channels even cover the story from time to time when a new secret tunnel or underground chamber is found. Here is a video of the owner of Asheville’s Pack Tavern, showing off the secret door in his basement, and speculating on the rumors of bootlegger tunnels and escape routes from speakeasies.
An ancient door still exists in the tavern’s cellar that supposedly once led to the basements of other nearby establishments. Some legends speculate that the tunnel actually led to the basement of the biggest bootleggers of all, the Asheville Police Department.
Where Did Rat Alley Come From?
Rat Alley is the most well-known of the tunnels under Asheville. While the story goes that Rat Alley was once the
beginnings of a proposed subway system for Asheville, abandoned after the Stock Market crash of 1929.
An excerpt from a 1990 walking tour of the city suggests a more mundane origin:
“In 1925…they made major improvements to Wall Street. It was no secret that pedestrians were beginning to favor Wall Street and use the bridge access over Zero Alley to the second floors of the Professional offices. Tench Coxe, Sr…built a sidewalk over the alley and transformed the offices to stores. The alley became known as Rat’s Alley.”
Rat Alley runs the length of Wall Street, functioning mostly as a rear exit to all the restaurants on Patton Avenue. The entrance is gated off to anyone without a key, and the tunnel is lined with cooks and servers on cigarette-breaks, and the clutter of the dozens of establishments. According to Pollock, Rat Alley ends across from Pritchard Park on Patton Ave. “It would be possible to exit there I think, but it was netted off on that end last time I was there,” he says.
The Vance Memorial was supposed to be one of the main stops for the subway system. Underground bathrooms had already been constructed in the late 1920s when the Great Depression halted further construction. The underground bathrooms reportedly remained open as segregated restrooms, as can be seen in old photographs. They were bricked in sometime in the 1970s.
“Those spaces are the most interesting to me,” says Pollock. “I believe they could have potentially extended beneath the old city hall which sat at the back of the square…until just before 1930. There is an architectural drawing…which shows entrances coming out from beneath the hill approximately in front of the current fire/police dept. The old city hall underground was known as “the dungeon,” where unruly prisoners were kept.”
This area by the Vance Monument is close by Pack Tavern, which may lend some credence to the stories about bootlegger tunnels and speakeasy escape routes. Who knows when the next city renovation will reveal another forgotten underground chamber or secret tunnel under Asheville.