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Jordan Creek: The Mysterious Tunnels over an Urban Stream

Underground tunnel enterance
Entrance to the underground tunnels at the intersection of Water St. and Main Ave. Photo credit: Rebekah Clark

In the heart of Springfield flows what used to be the flourishing Jordan Creek. As more settlers moved to the area in the late 19th century, the stream became polluted and stagnant. Then in the 1930’s, massive tunnels or “boxes” were built over the water, nearly a mile long, to help contain flooding. As decades passed, locals built businesses and housing on top of the tunnels. For this segment of our local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Rebekah Clark explores the local legends built around the urban stream and the forgotten underground tunnels of Springfield.

 

[Sound: trickling creek water]

“If you’re hearing a trickling sound of water behind me, you’re hearing the low, lazy current of the Jordan Creek. Right now, I’m standing at the entrance of one of these historic tunnels. The stream, which was monumental in the founding of Springfield, actually runs right through the heart of the downtown area. Over the years, settlers began complaining about the floodingof the stream and used it as a garbage dump. Now as I begin to enter of the one of these box tunnels, I am a little freaked out. The walls are graffiti-clad, and all I can think of is the legends I’ve heard about vampires living here. But the experts we talked to say that’s just a legend...”

“As far as I know, there are no vampires that live down there. At least I have never seen them.”

Loring Bullard calmed me down a little bit. He worked as the Executive Director for the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks for many years, before retiring. He also has done extensive research on the history of the Jordan Creek.

“There are bats that live down there. We’ve seen some fish in the stream. But, really the use is minimal, I mean in terms of human use. There’s really nothing to do other than walk through the tunnels.”

This stream is a creek with an interesting past. At one time, it was pristine and unspoiled, sustained by natural springs. This romantic description of a water source drew early settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee to the area in the 1830’s. The settlers of “Jordan Valley” included John Polk Campbell, who decided to settle in one particular area with his family that held a geological feature called a natural well. This well was actually a vertical cave opening that allowed him to look down and see a spring. Hence the name, Springfield.

This natural well connected with other local springs which all flowed into Jordan Creek. Campbell’s family settled along the creek and jump-started a town.

“And that’s right where Founders Park is. That is the sight, or origin of Springfield. Having a cabin right there along the stream made perfect sense. You’ve got pretty good soil; up above where the Square is today, John Polk Campbell had his corn field. It was a logical choice for a place to live.”

For decades, the existence of the natural wells, springs and Jordan Creek itself caused locals to believe that Springfield was founded on top of a huge underground cave that ran beneath the entire city. In later years, stories were revived after construction activities came across openings in the bedrock. Developers used these small caves to channel cool air into buildings on the surface, like Gilloz Theater, which became one of the first air-conditioned buildings in Springfield.

As the city expanded, so did the economic development along the creek. The streets surrounding the stream became the hubbub of commercial and industrial trade. All of the new rooftops channeled more and more water into the creek with every rain.

“Even back, some of the newspaper articles back from the 1840’s, they were already trying to deal with big floods. Of course, there was no garbage collection in Springfield. So all kinds of detritus, junk, dirt, filth, waste materials of all sorts washed right into the creek.”

The pollution and flooding was a nuisance to locals and many wanted the creek “capped.” A newspaper article from the Springfield Leader on April Fool’s Day in 1927 predicted that quote-“the entire creek will be covered from the east to the west city limits”-end quote.

Springfield leaders hastily built tunnels, or what engineers call “boxes,” that entirely enclosed sections of the creek. The concrete tunnels stretched two-thirds of a mile from downtown Springfield, beginning at Water Street and Main Ave. From there, they stretched eastward, collecting storm water and flushing the creek down to the James River. After the tunnels were constructed, builders paved over the boxes and built buildings on top of them. According to Todd Wagner, Chief Storm Water Engineer for Greene County, some of the foundations of the buildings are actually built into the tunnel concrete.

“Of course, as you walk the tunnels, you’ll see that under the railroad, it looks like this, then at another location, the dimensions are this and the bottom was built this way. That represents different eras when they built the different pieces and they built it different ways just because the designer had a different thing in mind.”

The construction on top of the tunnels made any prospect of completely opening the creek back up somewhat impossible, according to both Wagner and Bullard. As the years passed and the city grew even more, restoration efforts were implemented and the water is now relatively clean. However, pollution and runoff is still an issue for the creek and both men think that it will never fully be restored.

[Sound brought up: creek]

Many people in this area are not aware of the existence of these tunnels under Springfield, or their historical merit.  For those that are, usually it’s because of local myths that circulate still today about the tunnels possibly being haunted, or that they house different mythical creatures. But rest assured, Bullard put to rest all such rumors.

“For our purposes, the use has been educational, as a way to show people what’s happened to our streams, and why that’s not a good idea, and why that wouldn’t be done today. That would not be the solution to urban stream problems today. We are hopefully well-passed that point in terms of enlightenment and understanding of how streams work.”

The tunnels are open to tour. Community groups interested in setting up a tour of the underground passages may visit www.watershedcommittee.org to get signed up and scheduled for a tour.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Rebekah Clark.

[Sound: creek]