• Photography by Brandon Dill •
I spent the majority of my free time this past January and most of early February in storm drainage tunnels, sick with a seemingly endless seasonal cold, wading through dark waters, and praying that I wasn’t about to encounter one of the “small pockets of odorless methane gas” or diseased critters the City of Memphis’ official no-trespassing orders warn you about.
I was well prepared, in body if not spirit, for the particular challenges of the Memphis underground. I packed granola bars, bottled water, headlamps, and a mostly useless cell phone. I always brought a friend for backup in case of any unwanted human encounters, or to carry me out of the ditches should I perilously slip on oil-slick algae. I plotted my routes carefully, avoided the tunnels that I’d been cautioned were full of rocks or leaves or black muck, and stuck to those time-tested routes recommended by other explorers. I shied away from media about mine disasters or subway fires. I am not naturally claustrophobic, but I’m also not one of those no-fear commando types who champs at the bit for casual submarine travel or space tourism. This was a job. I steeled myself.
Once I finally “dipped in” (urban-explorer parlance for rappelling off broken chain-link into the water-streaked concrete hallways of the underground) I found that fear was not my biggest problem. Fear of the dark was quickly supplanted by nervous eagerness, which was, in turn, overtaken by the blank imperative to keep walking. My biggest problem, it turned out, was that I’d spent all my preparation time fixated on what I wanted to avoid. I had no idea what I was trying to find down there.
“The light at the end of the tunnel” seemed like a good, if obvious, place to start. My first subterranean trek led me a mile through a straight-shot, windowless catacomb that runs like a buried artery alongside the above-ground vein of Danny Thomas Boulevard. There was nothing, initially, to mark progress in the tunnel except for the occasional manhole, so my delicate sense of achievement rested on two moments: getting in and then, hopefully, getting out.
For the rest of it — the history and much-repeated rumors that give the tunnels their undeniable gravitas in Memphis lore — I’d have to go to the experts. But the experts, unequivocally, did not want to help. The City of Memphis is quick to tell you that drainage ditches are what is called, in OSHA terms, “an enclosed space” that requires special training and extensive ventilation equipment to navigate. It is advisable to be in close contact with the fire department so that firemen don’t accidentally dump de-oxygenating chemicals down the drain and suffocate you. The City is well aware that there is, according to one civil engineer, “stuff down there that would attract people,” and they are concerned, for all the right reasons, that you stay above ground.
For guidance in my ill-advised trek, I had to turn to the other kind of expert, the self-elected kind. I called up a man who has not-so-secretly breached the Memphis underground at least once for every year he has lived in Memphis. But Jimmy Ogle, the official Shelby County Historian and enthusiast of all things historical, above and below ground, also did not want to help me. This past year, the City sent Ogle a cease-and-desist order, which said, in no uncertain terms, to stop dipping in. Ogle is not interested in getting arrested. When he met me for some hushed conversation at his favorite Downtown haunt, Westy’s, he was clear that he has no remaining cards in the drain game. He was, however, willing to reminisce. “My first time in the tunnels,” Ogle told me over beers and fried catfish, “I didn’t have an exit strategy. That was really bad.”
Ogle has grey hair and glasses that seem somewhat at odds with his obvious vigor. He has an old-fashioned Memphis accent, the sort that renders words like “wash” as “war-sh” (as in “a storm will war-sh you out of those drains and into the Mississippi River”) and “ruin” as “rurn” (as in “I couldn’t believe it when I found those Civil War-era rurns ”). He seems to know everyone in town on a first-name basis, and has a catalog-like knowledge of infrastructural ephemera. When he told me that Memphis has 175 different kinds of manhole covers spread over 2,000 manholes, I had no trouble believing that he’d hand-counted them.
The story Ogle told me, which I corroborated on my first subterranean hike, was of a vanished stream. Back in 1795, before Memphis was Memphis, a Spanish expedition sent north from New Orleans by Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos briefly established a fort on the southernmost of the four “Chickasaw Bluffs.” These well-positioned bluffs were inhabited by the Chickasaw people but prized by all sorts of enterprising European expats. When Gayoso endeavored to purchase this territory for New Spain, he defined it by its water boundaries: The Mississippi, the (now) Wolf River, and a third, mysterious bayou.
The Spaniards stayed but briefly, the United States having acquired what is now Memphis in 1796, although that third river, known for the following century as the Gayoso Bayou, was given the Spanish governor’s name. But the Gayoso has been invisible now, at least to the naked eye, for another century.
The library has a small folder of newspaper clippings devoted to the waterway’s existence, with every article having a title like “Surprising Bayou Bubbles Secretly in Noisy Squalor” or “Historic Memphis Stream Now Impotent as Flood Menace” or, my personal favorite for its no-nonsense wording: “Where’s Creek? Down Manhole.”
If you’ve never heard of the Gayoso Bayou, it is because between about 1910 and 1930, the city buried it, all part of an overdue plan to reroute water drainage, eliminate the peril of yellow fever once and for all, and expand the city’s boundaries. Equally of concern to the city then was a more esoteric threat, one unsurprisingly rooted in racism. A 1909 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar reports that the open Bayou was seen as a “menace to the safety of children and the health of the community” because it brought “the gentle and accomplished young ladies and young men of the high school . . . into sight and hearing of unnamable [sic] negro lodging houses.”
What remains of the Bayou is now covered by what one Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, writing in 1931, termed its “man-made concrete straitjacket” (the stream happened to run directly beneath the old Press-Scimitar offices, so there may have been an undue amount of slow-news-day poeticism devoted to its demise). The water still runs to the Mississippi River but is now unseen beneath Danny Thomas Boulevard, the St. Jude campus, and a strip of brightly lit bail bonds stores.
It was inside this same concrete straitjacket that I found myself, one unseasonably warm afternoon in January, headed cautiously towards a place — or, more correctly, a rumored place — where both Jimmy Ogle and the City of Memphis had told me not to go.
You have to hoist yourself over a chain-link perimeter fence and walk across a sloping field that sits innocuously in the uptown Pinch district, but entering the Gayoso Bayou tunnels was not really that hard. A quick, eight-foot drop over a concrete ledge, and you’re in.
The bayou tunnels are relatively small, scaled to room height but otherwise devoid of human comforts. You saw quickly, upon entering the underground, that nothing can survive there for long. The tunnels were unerringly clean; not even stray trash could withstand the ton-weight of pressurized water that courses through the drains during a rainstorm. If it has not rained recently, the water level dwindles to a centralized trickle (“I once tested it to see how fast the water was running,” Ogle told me. “Three miles an hour.”) which passes over scattered brick rubble and lost hubcaps. Despite its general cleanliness, the underground smelled like car oil and must, and something about the humidity makes it so you can see your breath no matter the temperature.
Depending on the time of day that you make your way through the passage, there might be small cylindrical columns of sunlight cast down from the occasional manhole. My companions and I were there too late to observe any light save that from our flashlights, but we could certainly hear things. The sound of semi trucks rolling over metal manhole covers reverberated underground like exploding gunpowder. But the most pervasive sound wasn’t traffic. It was cascading water, which entered steadily from long pipes and formed stalagmite-like imprints on the tunnel walls. One of my friends recorded audio of the tunnel. It sounded, played back, like we are inside a waterfall.
After a mile of basically unvaried passage through the concrete drain, something happens. The tunnels open up with unexpected suddenness. We were still in darkness, but the darkness was somehow bigger.
Our flashlights revealed an arched cavern, lined with small red bricks. On either side of the room, concrete ledges sloping down formed long benches above the stream, like weird subterranean amphitheatre seating. I could see a circular imprint where a pipe drain once opened, now closed with bricks and mortar. (Jimmy Ogle had pointed out that the underground infrastructure changes alongside what’s above it. When a street changes, so must the position of the drains.)
The arched underground room where we found ourselves was quiet as a classical ruin. According to Ogle, it dates from the beginning of the last century, and some of its features may be even older. A line of thick, white stone formed the entrance one side of the cavern. It was, I learned, the original base of a bridge built in the 1880s. It remained white and almost pristine, regularly flushed clean of dirt and grime.
This first bayou cavern was awe-inspiring, but it was dwarfed by a neighboring room, our final destination in the tunnel. The brick-lined ceilings of the larger room were easily 25 feet tall, and held up (at least in part) by a series of tall, thin columns. There are areas of the ceiling that reveal brickwork ten layers thick. Beneath the concrete floor of the cavern, you can still make out swaths of the original cobblestones.
When we arrived at this final cavern, my companions and I turned off our flashlights. We listened in silence to the traffic go by over our heads, an event that seemed both insanely close and centuries away. I raised my hand in the darkness and held it an inch away from my face, just to make sure that I could not see it.
A few minutes later, our moment over, we crawled through a small tunnel and exited through a manhole into the downtown dusk. No one saw us, or if they did, they didn’t care. We retraced our steps above-ground, walking in the street past ASAP Bail Bonds and the statue of St. Jude releasing doves.
As we walked, I tried to get a retrospective sense of our journey. I had been somewhere — I’d seen something unexpected, even remarkable. I felt successful and tough, if a little ridiculous, in my knee-high waders and Walgreens-purchased headlamp. But I wasn’t sure, strictly speaking, that I’d found anything. The caverns and the Bayou are open secrets; their story already exists in online urban exploring forums and in old newspaper articles. I’d done nothing more than add to the file: Girl Enters Tunnel; Doesn’t Die.
My only choice, I decided, was to keep looking.
It isn’t hard to find drainage tunnels. They are present wherever we are. As a city engineer I spoke with put it, “If you have more than about ten houses, you’re gonna have a manhole. Almost every street has pipes in it.”
Like the Gayoso tunnels, most of these pipes follow a natural tracery of streams and tributaries that all eventually lead to the Mississippi River, the Wolf River to the north, or Nonconnah Creek to the south. Drainage pipes are perhaps not the most storied of all tunnels, and carry less lore than sewers or rumored old army thoroughfares, but there is something interestingly pedestrian about these structures. They are shortcuts, hiding places, a daily reminder that forces unseen course through our city.
I live in North Midtown, a few houses away from the concrete banks of Lick Creek, a network of drains that remain mostly open-air as they traverse the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood. If you follow Lick Creek headed south from my street, you eventually dip under North Parkway. Keep following the line, and you end up beneath the “Africa!” exhibit in the Memphis Zoo. Rhodes students and Midtown kids have used this improvised alleyway to illegally access the zoo for decades, though recently the zoo staff has erected some menacing barbed wire and chain-link to deter unwanted visitors.
I decided to try my luck in Lick Creek, hiking north towards my house from Overton Square, where the drains were clotted with putrescent sludge and wet leaves. Lick Creek was a far cry, cleanliness-wise, from the Gayoso tunnels. The Midtown ditches were more human, full of warped plastic trash and crumpled cans. You couldn’t walk 20 feet without running into strings of shopping bags and torn fabric, tightly wrapped around loose fence wire like a refuse-ridden maypole.
My friend and I spent the first leg of our hike climbing over downed branches and trying not to step in any milky white or too-dark water. I was wary of the debris because I did not want to find something that had been purposefully abandoned. As a friend had cautioned me, “You’re more likely to meet someone in Lick Creek than any of the other tunnels in town.” Lick Creek was accessible, if not habitable, which makes for a different set of both psychological and physical obstacles along the way.
The Lick Creek tunnels were also wider than the Bayou’s, and they carried more water. We had to wade. There was also more natural light in these tunnels, let in through closely set drainage grates. It was beautiful to see sunlight leaking around the dark corner of an underground passageway, and not just because light signals your way out. Also beautiful was what happened when my friend and I shone our flashlights directly into the creek: They cast spectral mirages on the tunnel walls, a projected map of what was underfoot.
Our improvised alleyway led us underground and then back out again, past well-manicured backyards into Overton Park. The drain narrowed and ran uncovered through the park. It was mid-afternoon when we were there, so we were in plain sight of joggers and dog-walkers. Few looked down to see us, though one older woman gave us the head-to-toe look and stated, “Well, we are on an adventure, aren’t we?”
The stretch of Lick Creek that runs beneath the zoo is the best part of the passage. Birds nest in brown vines growing out of close-grown trees and sections of jungle-like bamboo forest. There are fish in the water there, mostly minnows but some larger, visible in schools. Over the years, graffiti artists have turned the ditch walls into an illustrative scroll of tags and declarations of love, including one large blue painting of a woman’s face. The woman looks wise, a mystical guardian of the drains.
There is a public sculpture along the Greenline in VECA, a line of metal guppies mounted on posts. The sculpture, by local artist Jeannie Tomlinson Saltmarsh, is entitled, “Why Are There No Fish In Lick Creek?” But there are fish in Lick Creek. I’ve seen them.
T here is a great word in Italian that doesn’t have a good equivalent in English, but that occasionally shows up in our art history texts: capriccio . In fine-art lingo, it means “an architectural fantasy” that draws together archeological remains and ruins in fantastical combinations. A capriccio could be a lurid vision of a sewer that gives birth to mutant alligators and human-sized catfish. It could be the rumored Underground Railroad tunnels that folks say run under south downtown, merged with tales of North Memphis thoroughfares dug out during the Cold War. Capriccios are our arrested fantasies of a frozen past merged with our ruinous projections of an apocalyptic future.
I think we are drawn to tunnels — or, at least, I am — because they are themselves a realm of fantasy, a living capriccio. The underground, no matter how mundane in actuality, is always a hidden mirror to our lives above ground, through which we imagine that we can make out a murky picture of both past and future. We can’t help but experience the tunnels as a ruin, an architectural frontier between our moment and the eons that surround it.
I certainly let my thoughts drift into fantasy before I set off to find the underground waterfall. I’d been tipped off about the waterfall by an explorer friend, who passed along a vague set of directions that led me into unfamiliar neighborhoods north of the medical district. Of all the underground sites I’d sought out, this one was the most mysterious to me — I wasn’t even sure it was really a waterfall; it had been described as “kind of a waterfall type thing” and something I’d “see when I got there.”
My friend’s directions instructed me to cross a trash-strewn field (trash-strewn fields, I noticed, are common to the areas around drainage ditches), hop a fence, and use an unsteady-looking pipe to lower myself down 12 feet into the mouth of the drain. After that, I would follow the clean line of the concrete about a half-mile headed north, until I arrived at a split tunnel.
I managed it. The ditch was wide and set apart from the houses and streets on either side. I could hear voices in the distance, and the low but consistent sound of car traffic that I assumed came from the interstate. I made it past half-sunken bicycle spokes and a few water-bloated sneakers to the split tunnel, where the ground dropped into clear wading pools and headed straight into an unforgiving dark.
I chose the right tunnel and waded through the dark and damp for what seemed like a long time. I was beginning to think that my friend had given me a bad set of directions, when I heard rushing water. Fifty feet in front of me, a small overhead grate let in afternoon light that slanted across the tunnel walls to reveal a series of steps. There, the water picked up pace and fell in an even curtain over the long concrete stairs.
The underground waterfall is not, strictly speaking, a waterfall. It is a couple of slabs of graduated concrete over which water flows into a deeper drain. It is not exactly dramatic. It is just another place where water incrementally makes its way downhill, which is what (I was reminded by the civil engineer) water is always trying to do. There are no stunning Niagara Falls effects that make this place a particular destination; in fact, it felt like the opposite of a destination.
I took a moment. I sat on the edge of the stairs and watched the water run. I looked up just in time to see the wheel of a passing vehicle cast a quick shadow across the overhead drain. I took a couple of pictures with my cell phone camera, then put my phone away and sat in silence.
I felt calm, even detached (though I hoped not too detached, like in an early-stages-of-carbon-monoxide-poisoning kind of way). A friend of mine later observed, presciently, that the particular peacefulness inspired by the tunnels reminded him of what it felt like to hide when he was a child. As I walked, I thought about how rare it is, as an adult, to feel truly hidden.
Maybe we don’t go underground to find anything. Maybe we go to avoid feeling found. We seek out places in the city where we are not supposed to go because they relieve us of our tired, above-ground routines. Exploring the underground is exciting because we feel different when we are down there, like having an illicit affair during our long-term marriage to the gridded city.
If I’d continued to follow the tunnel, past the waterfall, I would have eventually ended up in the old Bayou caverns, and if I’d kept on past those I hypothetically could have made it to the Mississippi. Oh, to have a sturdy raft, a fearless constitution, and nowhere to be. But I didn’t keep walking. I turned around and came back out the way I came, until I exited the tunnels into the bright afternoon light.
Eileen Townsend writes regularly on the arts for the Memphis Flyer . She is also a contributing editor for Memphis magazine.