Buried truths in the bowels of Brooklyn
Even if you don’t live in New York, you’ve probably heard the tale of the alligator lurking in its subterranean depths, preying upon sewage workers and subway riders.
But what about the Germans who used to mix mustard gas in a secret tunnel that runs under Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn? Or the missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary reported to be stashed down there, beneath an intersection best known for traffic tie-ups and the Trader Joe’s?
Then meet Bob Diamond, who literally clawed his way into the tunnel nearly 30 years ago and has been fighting ever since to get permission for further excavation. His aim: to debunk the odd myths surrounding the cave and to prove another -- that a locomotive is buried at its bricked-over end.
So far City Hall has refused, Diamond says, arguing that reopening the tunnel that railway cars and horse-drawn wagons rumbled through from 1844 to 1861 would disrupt traffic.
Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation, said one excavation request from a film company hoping to document Diamond’s search had been rejected because it involved tearing up one of Brooklyn’s busiest intersections, the site of a hospital and a major expressway entrance ramp. “I think we’d consider it, but we want to see the right proposal,” Solomonow said.
“It’s kind of amazing that something of this size sat under everyone’s nose for so long and nobody noticed it,” said John Keen of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Assn., a nonprofit organization formed by Diamond that conducts tours of the half-mile-long cavern.
Diamond, now balding and pudgy, looks nothing like Indiana Jones. But to hear him tell it, the dashing character was his inspiration in uncovering the tunnel. One night in 1979, when he was an engineering student, Diamond turned on a radio and stumbled upon a fantastic tale involving missing pages from Booth’s diary. The words penned by Abraham Lincoln’s assassin allegedly were hidden in a locomotive buried in a tunnel just a few miles from Diamond’s home.
An obsession was born.
“I was like, a conspiracy theory about Lincoln, and a steam locomotive? Where do I sign up?” said Diamond, who took off a semester to search for the tunnel. He sought out old maps. He hounded city officials. He scoured newspaper articles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most people told him the tunnel did not exist. Others said it was full of water -- or giant rats.
“The more people told me these ridiculous stories, the more it made me want to look for it,” Diamond told a tour group of about 100 people last weekend who were waiting in line, flashlights in hand, before descending a narrow ladder into the tunnel.
Inside, the air is surprisingly cool and fresh-smelling. A phone line installed during Diamond’s initial explorations runs along the tunnel’s wall and connects to a dusty black rotary dial phone. “Speak loud,” reads a tag stuck on the handset. The ground of the 21-foot-wide cave is rutted from the tracks that once took railway cars from the water’s edge at the end of Atlantic Avenue into Brooklyn.
It took Diamond nearly two years to find the tunnel. The break came when a 1911 story he read in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper led him to a Brooklyn borough engineer’s office. There, Diamond says, inside a wooden box on a shelf, he found a map with a little blue dot marking the manhole cover.
He got permission to lift the manhole cover, but upon peering down the hole, city gas company officials insisted there was nothing down there but dirt.
Diamond, however, had just seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and asked himself, “What would Indiana Jones do?”
Outfitted with oxygen tanks, a mask, a walkie-talkie and a 7-foot crowbar, Diamond began clawing through the dirt with his hands. Suddenly, a blast of cold air poured over him. He had cracked his way into the mouth of the tunnel.
Since the tunnel was closed in 1861, the only visitors before Diamond apparently were electricians, who in the early 1900s went in to investigate rumors that Germans were mixing mustard gas there. It seems no Germans were found, nor has Diamond seen any sign of pirates said to have used the tunnel as a hide-out or of bodies reportedly dumped there by mobsters.
But he has been unable to access the final stretch of the tunnel, where the antique locomotive supposedly rests.
The closure of the tunnel, Diamond and his supporters say, should serve as a lesson to modern New Yorkers not to sink their trust into greedy developers, and to hold politicians accountable for the destruction of public services.
As the story goes, a real estate developer in the mid-1800s had grand plans to re-create the Champs-Elysees along Atlantic Avenue. He argued that to do so, he had to close the tunnel. Local businesses invested in the plan, but after the tunnel was plugged, the Parisian-style street never came to be. The real estate man vanished with investors’ money, leaving the neighborhood served by the rail tunnel in the lurch.
“Basically, we’re standing inside a monument to 19th century political corruption,” Keen says as a Sunday tour draws to a close.
Diamond says his battle to open the remainder of the tunnel is worth the headaches.
“When people come down to the tunnel and they all say, ‘Awesome,’ or ‘Oh, my God,’ that’s what makes me do it,” Diamond says as he perches near the tunnel’s mouth, waiting for another tour group to stream past him into the cavern.