The lost story of Milwaukee's (foot-powered) subway.
Carrying a flashlight, I pass through an iron (and, until a moment ago, locked) door and into a hidden passageway beneath the Broadway Central building at 241 N. Broadway. Glass discs line the ceiling, partially covered by white stone and dust – this is a “hollow sidewalk,” a sidewalk beneath a sidewalk, and light once passed through these murky lenses and onto the dusty floor below.
Numerous such tunnels have survived beneath Downtown Milwaukee since the mid-19th century – those not filled in by private or municipal constructions. Hollow sidewalks once carried both industrious workers and customers of underground retail and barber shops that plied their trades along the subterranean byways. “There were once freight elevators out on the sidewalks,” says Milwaukee historian John Gurda, all leading to “a honeycomb of underground spaces,” including vaults beneath Third Ward warehouses.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris.
Although these tunnels and chambers have been all but forgotten in the 21st century, their legends persist. In the 1980s, a group of construction workers digging near the intersection of Broadway and Menomonee Street unearthed a sack of gold coins somehow connected to the old network and dating as far back as 1848, according to Yance Marti, a civil engineer for the city of Milwaukee. (The workers saved the bullion for themselves.)
Another system of tunnels runs beneath Buffalo Street and the former Phoenix Hosiery Building complex in the heart of the Third Ward. Frequented by employees, the tunnels may also have hosted a few parties during their day, not unlike the Downtown steam tunnels currently owned by We Energies. The power company acknowledged the rumors but couldn’t speak to their veracity.
One more legend: A long, underground walkway still connects the Brumder Mansion, 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. (reportedly a speakeasy during the 1920s), to a house on 31st Street. “There used to be a door that went to the tunnel,” says the Brumder’s current owner, Tom Carr. “But we’re not going to drill a hole in the concrete wall to see if it’s still there.”