This week the Vagabond visits the greatest eyesore Gadsden ever had.
Called the “Tunnel Block,” the area consisted of a group of about six or eight frame storehouses built over a creek on the north side of Broad Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. This was way back in the 1870’s and 1880’s.
A young friend of the Vagabond recently told about how he and some of his buddies went downtown and entered a tunnel near Court Street. The part of the tunnel that my friend went into no doubt emptied into the Tunnel Block system.
The old houses were built over a deep depression in that section that was caused by erosion, and which was very deep. About four of the houses were, in fact, two-story buildings, with the first floor being on a level with the present sidewalk in that vicinity.
A boardwalk constituted the sidewalk for the second stories and the lower floors had no sidewalk, the street being on a level with the ground floors. Some of the leading business houses were in that block, several being located in what was called the basement.
A man standing at the intersection of Court and Broad Streets could not see a wagon down in that depression and the hill on either side was very steep. Many people from Court Street could see the wagon disappear in the hole and in a minute see it reappear.
The tunnel, or ravine, was created by run-off water from Eighth Street. The run-off created a ditch across what is the now the grounds of the Gadsden Public Library. The ditch ran east and south of St. James Catholic Church at Chestnut and Seventh streets, ran in the rear of the Pippin Cleaner, cut across Chestnut Street (requiring a bridge).
The ditch continued across Broad and Locust Streets, both of which were bridged, and cut a deep depression from Locust to Fifth Street, where the run-off it crossed and emptied into Town Creek.
The first building was a two-story frame structure located at the northeast corner of Broad and Sixth streets and erected by a Frenchman named Jean Leolaire. Fifty feet east of that structure was a vacant lot, and from that lot started what was long known as “Tunnel Block.”
The two end stores had square false fronts and were located partly on the present sidewalk level. The stores in between had peaked roofs and were in and over the big hole that was caused by a ravine that cut across Chestnut, Broad and Locust streets.
One of the first millinery and dress making shops in Gadsden was located in the west end of the block, and H. W. Woodward had a dry goods store at the east end. Underneath the block was a deep tunnel caused by erosion. There was a plank walk in front of the stores at sidewalk level and another row of stores at street level. In other words, the buildings were really two stories in height.
Where 513 Broad Street stood (now Imagination Place) was a large brick livery stable operated by B. A. Kyle and which was probably built for him. Four members of the Jesse James gang rode into that stable one day and exchanged their jaded horses for fresh one. The “ex-change” was made while two outlaws held guns on the proprietor and his assistant. Two of the outlaws were captured and taken to jail at Huntsville.
In the early 1890s, the west wall dropped down into the depression and was not restored until the Schulers bought the property in the early 1900’s and used the location as an icehouse. A high board fence extended from the livery stable to the east end of the tunnel buildings, with a big gate near the stable.
The large hole caused by the widening of the ravine behind the sidewalk was used as a horse lot. The fence was to keep the stock inside and prevent pedestrians from falling into the lot.
On the south side of Broad Street at 522 (now Prestige Realty), was a boardwalk to within 50 feet of the corner of Sixth Street. Wagons could pass under this walk.
At the Sixth Street corner was a residence that was built on the present sidewalk level, but it had a two-flight stairway leading down into the depression on that side.
All of the buildings on that side of the street to Chestnut were built in the depression and in effect filled in the eroded section. One night several cows were drowned in the backyard of the residence at Sixth and Broad streets by a flash flood.
A boat was at kept tied up at the southeast corner of Chestnut and Sixth streets where the Masonic temple once stood. The boat was used by boys who paddled around the pond that was formed after every heavy rain. The ravine was so deep that Chestnut, Broad and Locust streets were bridged.
In 1883 the city council considered a proposal to build a brick or stone culvert across Broad Street, but gradually and without much design, the three streets were filled into their present status. The L&N Railroad did most of the fill work on Locust Street. Why those old wooden shacks were built after the Civil War was never understood. It was not long before the owners began to realize that the location was bad, and the stores were allowed to deteriorate and practically fall to pieces.
When the basement of the block became untenable because of the water in the ravine on which the buildings were erected, the whole block began to deteriorate and became a real eyesore. Heavy rains caused a flood of water to rush through the basement stores, and the floods became worse each year. At one time, professors John Potter and James Bailey taught school in one of the abandoned stores. A man and his wife later ran a disorderly house in another.
Several blacks moved into the area, at with at least one of the residents owning a blind tiger. The weather-boarding having been removed, the upper stores were propped up by pine poles.
Broad and Locust streets were gradually filled in and the old boardwalk across the street in front of the tunnel stores was torn down, but not before all sorts of shacks were operated.
Back in the early 1880s, the city council was considering building a brick of stone culvert across the depression due to the deep ravine that ran across that thoroughfare. The west half of the block was built over the depression, and for some time a wooden bridge was maintained across the ravine or ditch, which was finally filled in and caused to disappear.
Many fires broke out in the block, but it seemed for a long time that the structures simply could not be burned to the ground. Eventually, a blaze broke out that erased the eyesore forever, and the whole city rejoiced.
You can still see what remains of the old Tunnel Block in a depression in the parking area behind Jefferson’s Restaurant. Much has been filled in.