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Is it true that smugglers’ tunnels run all under downtown Wilmington?

Ben Steelman
Jacob's run

The tunnel that carries Jacob's Run beneath downtown Wilmington. This photo appears in Beverly Tetterton’s “Wilmington: Lost but Not Forgotten.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, there are tunnels — often very elaborate, brickwork tunnels with vaulted roofs — that snake under the downtown Historic District to the Cape Fear River. Nobody really knows how old they are, although parts of them could date before the American Revolution.

But, alas, all those legends — of pirates and smugglers stowing booty beneath the city streets, of escaped prisoners and an Underground Railroad terminal and young lovers meeting for secret trysts — are probably just legends, according to David La Vere, a historian at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, who wrote an article about the tunnels in Our State Magazine back in 2002.

The unglamorous truth is that the tunnels were mainly used for sewage and drainage. Charles B. Foard, a local historian and retired civil engineer, called them “just private sewers,” in a 1972 interview with the StarNews.

Back in the day, as many as eight small creeks and streams flowed through what is now the Historic District into the Cape Fear. Most of these can be seen on C.J. Sauthier’s 1769 map of Wilmington. Over time, most of these were bricked in and covered over, converted into glorified storm drains.

Some mystery surrounds when the tunnels were built. “The Wilmington Town Book,” edited by Donald R. Lennon and Ida Brooks Kellam, describes an April 7, 1772, agreement between the town and with Henry Britton for “making Arches in the Town.” The footnote states, “It was at this time that the town turned from bridges to arches for resolving the problem of streams flowing through the business district. Brick and timber structures were built over the streams and below the level of the streets. These subterranean arches have remained beneath Wilmington’s streets until modern times. They have been measured at 24 inches wide and 6 feet. 6 inches in height.”

However, some obscure wording in a 1749 deed suggests that work on the tunnels might have begun  by then.

Intriguingly, 1969 excavations at Russellborough — the manor on the west bank of the Cape Fear, just north of Brunswick Town, that served as the official residence of colonial governors Arthur Dobbs and William Tryon — uncovered a brickwork tunnel leading to the river that was virtually identical to those under downtown Wilmington.

The most famous of these tunnels is  Jacob’s Run, which follows a zig-zag path from as far as North Sixth Street, just south of the old New Hanover County Courthouse building, under the old Roudabush building at 33 South Front St., Wilmington [Map this], and empties into the Cape Fear just south of the J.W. Brooks building, 18 S. Water St., Wilmington [Map this].

 (A widespread misconception claims that Jacob’s Run flows into the river near Chandler’s Wharf between Orange and Ann streets; that tunnel is Tanyard Branch, another main tunnel.)

Jacob’s Run was named for Joseph Jacobs, a prominent Wilmington merchant from around 1775. Jacobs and his brother Benjamin built the original St. John’s Masonic Lodge building in the 100 block of Orange St. (now part of the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, 116 Orange St., Wilmington [Map this]). Tony Wrenn credits Joseph Jacobs as the building’s architect.

A number of side tunnels lead into Jacob’s Run. The best-known of these runs under the Burgwin-Wright House at 224 Market St., Wilmington [Map this], and under the Rox nightclub (the old Manor Theatre building) at 208 Market St., Wilmington [Map this]. A nightclub called “Jacob’s Run” operated in this latter building for a few years in the late 1980s.

Part of this tunnel branch, or another one, also runs under St. James Episcopal Church, 25 S. Third St., Wilmington [Map this].

One of the more persistent legends claims that Patriot soldiers, held prisoner by the British in the Burgwin-Wright House (which was built on the foundations of the old county jail) somehow found their way into Jacob’s Run and made good their escape. Alas, the story cannot be verified.

Part of Jacob’s Run once ran under the Cooperative Savings and Loan building (now First Bank) at 201 Market St., Wilmington [Map this], but this section was filled in and diverted under Marke Street in 1958, during construction of the present building.

Another altered remnant of an early stream was Rock Spring, a bricked-in natural spring at the foot of Chestnut Street. According to Andrew Howell in his “Book of Wilmington,” Rock Spring was prized by ships’ captains in the 1800s as a source of fresh water; one local superstition claimed that if you drank from Rock Spring, you would eventually return to Wilmington. In 1930, however, Howell noted that Rock Spring had been closed and paved over for several years after it was declared “a menace to health.”

Now largely walled up and replaced by the city’s sewage pipes, the tunnels occasionally make their presence known. Part of Jacob’s Run collapsed in 1928, in September 1951 near the intersection of North Third and Market streets and again in September 1976 at Second and Market. In 1972, StarNews reporter John Randt and photographer Herman Benton descended into a stretch of Jacob’s Run and found the brickwork in surprisingly good condition.

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