Have you ever wondered why there are reports of so many giant Burmese pythons in Florida yet no one seems to catch one? Same for the Swamp Ape. And all of those escaped lab monkeys. And where do all of those senior citizens disappear to right after the Early Bird special is sold out? Could there be mysterious tunnels only they know about? Turns out that may be the answer, at least in Ybor City, a historic neighborhood in the northeast art of downtown Tampa, Florida, where an urban legend about hidden underground tunnels has suddenly broken through from legend to reality. Put on your miner’s hat and let’s go urban spelunking.
"The tunnels of Ybor City represent one of the great riddles and mysteries."
Dr. Gary Mormino, professor emeritus of history at The University of South Florida told Tampa’s Fox13 News that he believed the tunnels – discovered at the corner of 12th Street and Sixth Avenue by construction workers excavating for a new building – were part of the legendary labyrinth rumored to have been built under the city in the 1800s and used for a variety of nefarious activities once they were abandoned before ever being completed for their equally mysterious original purpose.
"Clearly we have tunnels. There's no question about it. We've broken through and we've seen them."
Architect Gerry Curts, whose office is next to the tunnel opening, showed Fox 13 photographs of the tunnels under Ybor City, which was founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a cigar manufacturer. He and other cigar makers hired thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy to roll the hundreds of millions of cigars they sold annually, turning Tampa into "Cigar City.” It’s still known for its cigars but the hand rollers have long been replaced by rolling machines and the neighborhood disintegrated until recently when gentrification by artists revitalized it into the entertainment and office center it is today.
Yeah, yeah, yeah … what about the secret tunnels?
Right. Tampa Bay Times reports that the first tunnels were discovered in the early 2000s when tracks were being laid for a streetcar system. At that time, it was speculated that the brick-lined, dirt-floored tunnels were part of an old drainage system taking water to the nearby Ybor Channel and Tampa Bay. However, the flat dirt floors told Curts otherwise.
“If you are going to build drainage why would you do it like that?”
Because of their size, the tunnels would seem to have been part of a major public works project, but no records of that can be found. On the other hand, theories about their possible illegal purposes abound. If this branch of the system reached Tampa Bay, it would support the idea that the tunnels were used to smuggle Chinese immigrants into the city for non-cigar labor needs at a time when it was nearly impossible for Asians to immigrate legally. Those immigrants could also include Chinese prostitutes that were an unfortunate part of the massive cigar-rolling labor force.
Outside or transporting illegal immigrants, another theory is that the tunnels were used to transport illegal booze. THNey;re big enough to have easily accommodated wagons filled with moonshine during Prohibition, not to mention other illegal products, people and lottery numbers. Historian Mormino doesn’t buy this.
"Everyone was selling bootleg whiskey in Tampa at that point. Why would you need to go to the expense of building a tunnel? It makes no sense."
While one group argues the historical origins of the tunnels, another argues their historical significance and wonders if they should be preserved. The developer has offered to put a glass floor over them, but any more than that requires people to ask the same question that was probably asked in the late 1800s … how much money can be made off of them?
Has anyone thought to ask the senior citizens … or the Swamp Ape?