One of the great mysteries of Ypsilanti are the tunnels of Depot Town, a network of tunnels behind the buildings on the north side of Cross Street. Questions have been raised for years as to who built the tunnels and why. It is a mystery that has been around for years.
The truth is, there is not one network of tunnels in Ypsilanti, but several. There is a network of tunnels on the east side of the city as well. The outlets for some of these tunnels at the Huron River were still visible into the 1930’s.
“Various tunnels leading in several directions beneath the ground on the east side of the Huron River have been found from time to time, and the openings into these can still be seen at some places. One of them opens into the east bank of the Huron not far from the Michigan Central railroad station. These tunnels are timbered and stoned to support the walls and roofs, but owning to the small size of the passages and the danger of explorers becoming trapped by caveins they have never been completely investigated,” reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of June 19, 1936.
The tunnels of Depot Town had entrances in the basements of the building on the north side of the street. These were big enough for an adult to walk upright through.
The tunnels were blocked off years ago, when the city installed water mains under the alley years ago. A lot of work went into the making of these tunnels. Some say the tunnels were built by the Underground Railroad, to aid escaping slaves on their flight to Canada. The slaves, so the story goes, would hid in the tunnels, then take boats to Lake Erie and then to Canada. Yet this seems unlikely, as there were a number of mills and dams along the river in the 1850’s. Anyone using the river for transport would have to get out of the river and around each of the dams, including the one at Michigan Ave., another at Water Works Park, and so on.
The entrance to one of these tunnels was in the basement of 27 East Cross Street, with its arched top and base of stone. At one time Harold Shauan owned the building. He went into the tunnel once to see where it went, and went in far enough to hear trains passing overhead. “At that stage, reported the Ypsilanti Press of July 12, 1962, “rodents were thick enough to discourage further progress and he returned to the original opening.”
As it turns out, the tunnels were the work of the railroad, but not the Underground Railroad. Back in 1837, when the tracks for the Michigan Central Railroad were being laid, a drainage problem developed when a deep grade was cut into the hill between Park and Grove Streets. The Michigan Central Railroad dug a drain and allowed the residents of Ypsilanti, who had their own drainage problems, to connect to the drain. Thus the network of tunnels on the east side of the city.
The tunnels on the north side of Depot town were also the result of the railroad. It seems there was a siding that ran right behind the buildings on the north side of the street, where the alley is now. Behind the buildings facing the street were a number of outbuildings. To walk out the back door of the main buildings to get to the outbuildings could prove dangerous with a train passing by. So tunnels were dug under the tracks to make passage easy and safe.
Time passed and the need for the tunnels was removed and the use was forgotten. Still, the tunnels make a good story.