Last week I began my exploration of favorite elements of childhood mysteries with a look at hidden treasures. This week, we’ll dig into tunnels. I was sufficiently intrigued by the topic to purchase a $5 Kindle edition of a 1947 book I had as a kid, as well as a $28 hardcover of a poorly written series book from 1940. I read them as “research” for this post. 😆
A 1950 book in the Hardy Boys series with a spot-on title was #29 The Secret of the Lost Tunnel by Andrew Svenson. It was, like all of the early books, revised and shortened, and I only read the 1968 version in my youth. The 1968 cover art by Rudy Nappi illustrated the moment the boys discovered the Civil War tunnel, which contained cannonballs with their own secret.
I don’t remember much from that tale, but at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic, I needed a very light escape. So I reread a later work, Hardy Boys #44 The Haunted Fort, a tale written by David Grambs in 1965, late enough that it never received a rewrite. It was better written and included the same tropes of a secret tunnel with a hidden treasure.
The Disappearing Floor
But one of my favorite Hardy Boys stories has an interesting history. John Button took over the ghostwriting for the series from Leslie McFarlane for #17-21. His books were published from 1938 to 1942 and are known for their inferior writing and bizarre elements with futuristic gadgets and exotic locations. Button wrote the 1940 edition of #19 The Disappearing Floor, which is regarded as the worst written story in the canon. I had never read his tale, instead only knowing the radical rewrite in 1962 by John Leone. I loved the eponymous disappearing floor in the rewrite, which was basically a large elevator which lowered to reveal…a secret tunnel. The story included intercoms, sensors, machinery, furniture bolted to bedroom walls, and how the floor killed its owner. The mechanisms fascinated me, much like the ones on Krakatoa in William Pène du Bois’ The Twenty-One Balloons, which won the 1948 Newbery Medal.
But I was intrigued by this summary of the original version of Hardy Boys #19: “The Hardy Boys smash Duke Beeson’s (AKA Chief Shining Light Of The Sun-Worshipping Ozonites) robbery gang using the weird inventions of Aunt Gertrude’s former classmate, Eben Adar.”
That sounded like a hoot, but archive.org only had the 1962 edition for free online reading.
I first realized there were two versions of many of the Hardy Boys books back in elementary school when I spotted two Hardy Boys books in our church’s little library. They had brown covers, rather than the picture covers I was used to.
Opening one up, I immediately noticed that the end papers were a single orange drawing instead of the little line drawing vignettes in my books at home. Then I noticed these editions had more pages than mine. What was going on? What sort of alternate reality was this?
So I checked them out and was staggered to find they were quite different. Even at that young age, I could tell they were better written, although they did have odd terms like “jalopy” and “rumble seat” and some obvious racial stereotypes. The original books were 225 pages with 25 chapters, while the revisions were 180 pages with 20 chapters. In the original books that Leslie McFarlane wrote, Frank and Joe gradually aged, they had far less respect for law officers, and Aunt Gertrude was a major character.
Thus I knew what physical characteristics to look for to identify an original 1940 edition of The Disappearing Floor. I found one at abebooks.com and bought it as “research” for this post.
Oh, my. What an incoherent mess. It leaps from one bizarre incident to another. The boys beat escaped tigers to death. People are repeatedly frozen by an ice ray or magnetism, take your pick. There are plants grown only with electricity. Frank and Joe dress up as old ladies and easily fool the villain, who dresses up sometimes as an Indian cult leader, an idea that gets zero development. Yikes!
Almost no one in the book acts rationally, especially the adults, and the disappearing floor of the title doesn’t make an appearance until the final pages and is itself nonsensical. I snapped a photo of one page so that you can sample the execrable writing.
It appears that Button was fairly dutiful in following a bizarre 10-page plot outline by Edna Stratemeyer Squier, the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer. Edward had founded the syndicate responsible for so many children’s series books. After he died, from 1931 to 1942, Edna and her sister Harriet alternated in writing the outlines for the books which the ghostwriters were to follow. Edna moved to Florida in 1942 and left the syndicate in the hands of Harriet, and 1942 also marked the end of the Button era. Leslie McFarlane returned to write a few more of the books before a series of other ghostwriters took over.
The revisions of the original 38 books which Harriet Stratemeyer directed from 1959 to 1973 usually resulted in worse books. But #19 is a glaring exception. The total rewrite of The Disappearing Floor was desperately needed.
I remember noticing as a child how some series books stole elements from each other. Mildred Wirt Benson wrote Nancy Drew #2, The Hidden Staircase, in 1930. It featured a mansion connected to a neighboring one by a secret tunnel with a hidden staircase, and one neighbor used it to harass the other. Later I read Trixie Belden #14, The Mystery of the Emeralds, which was written by Virginia McDonnell in 1965. In it, Trixie discovers a hidden staircase in a mansion that leads down to a secret tunnel that connects to another mansion, and again a meddlesome neighbor is making trouble with it. Dionne Warwick has something to sing about that.
I also noticed that after Mildred Wirt Benson had retired from her time posing as Carolyn Keene, the Nancy Drew series stole from itself: #34, The Hidden Window Mystery, has yet another mansion with a secret tunnel and staircase. Jeepers, Scooby, that sounds familiar.
Another tunnel I was intrigued by as a kid was Tunnel Two in The Three Investigators books. First published as “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”, those books were better written than the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Dana Girls books from the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Robert Arthur, Jr. wrote the first books in the series from 1964 until his death in 1969. He had been a story editor and script writer for Alfred Hitchcock’s television show, and he was asked by Random House to edit a series of literary anthologies that capitalized on the famous director’s popularity. Their success led Arthur to suggest he write a new children’s book series, and he wrote two each year.
His mysteries were far more elaborate than anything in the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. I especially liked #2 The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and I dreamed about the secret HQ the three boys used. It was an old 30-foot mobile trailer hidden among the piles of junk in the Jones Salvage Yard. It had secret exits, a lab and darkroom, office, and periscope. Red Gate Rover led through the salvage yard fence, Green Gate One led to a workshop and printing press and on into Tunnel Two, which ran beneath some junk and under the trailer, entering through a trap door. Easy Three was a false door leading into the front of the trailer, with the key hidden in a box of other keys in the yard.
The higher quality of that series meant that my school library actually stocked them, whereas many librarians turned up their noses at the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and their ilk. So I enjoyed checking out those books from the Leo C. Mayfield Junior High library. But I was puzzled by how books 1-9 and 11 were together on the shelves, but #10 was missing. I figured out its title from the back covers of the others and found it was shelved not under Robert Arthur, Jr. but under William Arden. And lo and behold, there were several more of the books under that name.
Unlike the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which used the Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene pseudonyms for their series no matter who wrote the book, The Three Investigators’ authors received full and proper credit, although some still used their own personal pseudonyms. The Mayfield library’s card catalog, which was actual 3×5 inch cards back in my day, didn’t have a way of tracking book series. So it became a tiny mystery to figure out who wrote the different books so I could locate them on the shelves. I eventually found the tomes written by Mary Virginia Carey and Nick West (really Kin Platt).
A Religious Experience
My parents sometimes bought me books written for Christian youth. I laughed at the clumsy writing in Bernard Palmer‘s Jim Dunlap and the Secret Rocket Formula, while I remember being confused by the Sugar Creek Gang. I think being an only child made it difficult for me to keep up with stories about a boy with six brothers. Holy testosterone.
But one award-winning religious book of my youth which featured secret tunnels was my musty green hardback edition of The Hidden Treasure of Glaston by Eleanore M. Jewett, which was published in 1946. It was a Newbery Honor book that my father probably picked up at a garage sale. It drew upon the legend that a series of tunnels lie beneath Glastonbury Tor.
My copy was either sold off or donated in childhood, and I didn’t find it at archive.org for checkout. I remembered it as being a quality story, so for this post I invested $5 to order the Kindle edition and reread it for the first time since elementary school.
The book was certainly more sophisticated than any of the series books I enjoyed. I remember relying on context clues to figure out some of the terms as a child, occasionally resorting to my trusty Webster’s for help. This time around, I could just tap a word and see its definition in my Kindle.
I remembered the plot and crucial elements, but now I have the benefit of knowing more about the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as King Henry II thanks to seeing Becket in high school. And I know much more about monastical life thanks to the Brother Cadfael books of Edith Pargeter.
The tunnels and hidden treasure were there as I dimly recalled, including how the doors of an aumbry concealed one tunnel. See what I mean about vocabulary? I’ve inserted in this post what my Kindle’s default dictionary showed for aumbry. But since 2014 I’ve had a soft spot for the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, thanks to James Somers. So here is its definition:
The Hidden Treasure of Glaston also has atmosphere and clear messages about self-reliance, seeking and following the path which suits a person’s talents and personality, and effective leadership. I can see why it was a Newbery runner-up, and appreciate how it was careful to make the Holy Grail a visionary and not a physical object.
The Paoli Underpass
An interest in tunnels whetted by my childhood reading was first rewarded when I was shown an old underpass that ran under Highway 77 near my grandmother’s home in Paoli, Oklahoma. Before Interstate 35 was built, the traffic on old 77 was intense. By the time I was around, 77 was far less traveled, although big trucks still rumbled by and shook my grandmother’s house. Unfortunately, that underpass was underwhelming — it definitely smelled like urine.
The only tunnels I use routinely are five short roadway underpasses along Bartlesville’s Pathfinder Parkway. And my printable and interactive maps help ensure they are anything but secret.
The OKC Conncourse
Far nicer and more extensive were the tunnels that Jack Conn promoted between the downtown buildings of Oklahoma City. I loved exploring the Conncourse in the 1970s, which is now called the Underground. The tunnels were anything but secret, of course, but I don’t remember the Hardy Boys getting to order and enjoy a slice of Ricoletto’s pizza in any of their tunnels.
I remember how in the 1970s some of the tunnels had bold abstract patterns that flowed across the carpet and up the walls and around the ceiling. More recently they’ve used dramatic and colorful lighting. The tunnels are over a mile long and cover over 20 square blocks, with many of them now serving as designated art galleries.
Other Undergrounds…and Skyways
Tulsa has some tunnels of its own, and even little Bartlesville gets in on the act with tunnels linking the various Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips buildings and a parking lot. However, I’ve never been in any of their passages.
A far more famous city’s underground I have seen are a few of the passageways and basements in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, created when the town’s streets were regraded up a story or two. If you’re ever in Seattle, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is a fun outing.
I expected that Minneapolis would have an extensive tunnel system, given its harsh winter weather. So I looked it up, only to find that it instead has a skyway system of enclosed pedestrian footbridges. Its 9.5 miles of pathways connect buildings over 80 city blocks. So maybe they prioritized natural light? Well, it turns out that the skyways weren’t originally conceived to escape the weather but instead were used to reduce congestion on the city’s sidewalks and streets. That’s nice, but I’m skeptical that any children’s books would include a lost secret skyway.
The Tunnels of the Marland Mansion
One of my favorite places in Oklahoma is the Marland Mansion, built in Ponca City from 1925-1928 by oilman E.W. Marland. It was a 43,561 square-foot $5.5 million “Palace on the Prairie” situated in a 2,500 acre estate on the edge of town. He and his second wife, Lydie, moved into the mansion, but only occupied it for a few years. (She was his niece by marriage, his adopted daughter from ages 16-28, and then his second wife. Yes, it is quite a story.)
In November 1928, Marland had to resign as president of his oil company in a hostile takeover by J.P. Morgan & Co. and by 1931 the Marlands could no longer afford the utilities on the huge mansion. They moved into the Artist Studio on the estate, and the mansion was only used on special occasions, such as his gubernatorial inaugural ball in 1935. Marland sold the mansion to a religious order in 1941.
I first visited and toured the mansion in the 1980s with my best friend. We were intrigued to read that there were tunnels from the mansion to the artist studio and the boathouse, and disappointed that they were kept locked. It wasn’t until decades later that mansion director David Keathly came across a group of my friends touring the place and offered to take us along the 550-foot tunnel from the mansion to the boathouse. What a treat! I found a video online where he provides a look at the hidden whisky room and a glimpse of the tunnels:
If you like architecture and are ever near Ponca City, I urge you to tour both the Marland Mansion as well as Marland’s Grand Home, where he lived with his first wife. They are both interesting showplaces from a century ago. And while you’re in town, I recommend eating at Enrique’s at the Ponca City Airport.
Tunnels are frequently used to route steam and chilled water pipes, electrical cabling, etc. underground, especially on campuses with a central plant. The University of Oklahoma has seven miles of such tunnels, some of which date back to 1948. When I was taking undergraduate classes there, I was told that some of the steam tunnels were deliberately run underneath sidewalks to help reduce ice and snow accumulations on them in the winter. As one would expect, students are known to sometimes break into the system to explore.
A tunnel I currently still have access to is one at the high school where I taught for 27 years. I’ve never actually ventured through it, since it is not standing-height. It was built for steam pipes and the like running from the old boilers in the basement of the main building to the separate field house. It runs from underneath the 1939 auditorium, which is now a library, to the Phillips field house.
Sixteen years ago I made a crazy video where I walked down the stairs off the old stage to that tunnel, tacking on several different clips to zoom way, way out from it.
City storm sewers vary greatly in size, sometimes enlarging into tunnels that youngsters may be tempted to explore. When I was in junior high school, I lived in a neighborhood in Oklahoma City that formed the headwaters of the Deep Fork River. The former creeks were channelized, transforming deep ditches covered in brush into wide deep concrete channels that sometimes led into tunnel systems. One large drainage tunnel was constructed adjacent to a railroad track, and my friends and I traced it underground for several blocks. Parts of the system somewhat resembled a system a fellow explored on YouTube.
Those pale in comparison to the largest storm drain in the world. In Japan, there is an anti-flood system 165 feet below Kasukabe City with five silos connected by four miles of tunnels. The city offers guided tours of its $2 billion concrete temple.
I’ve been through many highway and train tunnels. Some of the most interesting ones I know of were narrow ones built along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon from 1914 to 1921. The Mitchell’s Point Tunnel had five windows providing views of the gorge, but that tunnel was destroyed in 1966 to expand Interstate 84. The Mosier Twin Tunnels of 1921 were backfilled by 1958 but restored for bicycle and pedestrian use in 2000, and they have two adits, which are side passages leading to windows.
We don’t have any subways around here, but I’ve ridden the subway in New York City, although I haven’t seen in person the abandoned City Hall station. A subway line in Rome continues to unearth archaeological items, as do train tunnels beneath Amsterdam.
Nature creates tunnels, and I’ve enjoyed one made by water and another created by lava. There is an S-shaped tunnel at Bennett Spring park in Missouri which is 296 feet long, 16 feet high, and 50 feet wide. A stream cut it through a dolomite ridge. Dolomite is calcium magnesium carbonate and slightly water soluble.
Back in 2009, I hiked a mile down a lava tube in Oregon. I carried a lantern for that bizarre hike. The tube had no forks and simply got smaller and smaller. The temperature at the opening was 86 degrees Fahrenheit and it dropped to 42 degrees at its end.
And I’ve walked through many caves in the Ozarks, as well as the Oregon Caves and Mammoth in Kentucky, although I’ve never been to Carlsbad.
Building Your Own Tunnel
I have been fascinated by one man’s personal tunnel project. Colin Furze enthusiastically documented his long project of digging out a passage under his Lincolnshire garden to connect his house, shed, and eventually a bunker. It has been delightful to watch him pursue that labor of love.
Tunnels of Love
And I could go on with an example of a tunnel of secrets. The tunnel of love variation on the Old Mill ride was a mystery of a bygone era. Hundreds of them were included in amusement parks in the 20th century. But some mysteries are best left to the imagination.