The Washerwoman’s Genes

July 25, 2007

Subterrean Chambers

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:19 am

The earth collapsed into a sinkhole in Ossining NY recently, and the reason turned out to be an underground warren of tunnels.

These aren’t just any old tunnels, either. They are architecture: workmanlike brick walls, vaulted ceilings, and iron frames for gates. As tall as 15 feet in places, the passages connect a series of at least twelve rooms running east and west, north and south. They are not, in other words, shovel-and-bucket work, as would be the case if they were escape tunnels for not-so-far away Sing Sing prison or a literally underground section of the underground railroad.

So what are they? No one knows. Built, at best estimates, in the early to mid-nineteenth century, their origins and purpose have been obliterated by time. If these tunnels were in Egypt or Peru, some place where ancient civilizations left undocumented creations behind, the mystery would be “natural.” But how can well planned, permanent structures built in NY in what should be recent history turn out to have no discernable provenance?

There are some ad hoc explanations. Some local residents tell of visiting the tunnels as youths and of hearing lore about their origins. Reputed to run to the rail tracks along the Hudson connecting NYC to Albany-Troy, one story is the tunnels were used to move commodities. Researchers are currently studying the history of the land ownership and trying to document the structures. Reportedly there are other archways buried in nearby woods.

I would love to see these tunnels. They are now off-limits: on private property, a danger to casual explorers, and the subject of controversy over their fate.

The tunnels tell a story about the past. They tell a profound truth: the past is a mystery. The remnants we have may be solid as stone, yet what do they amount to? Hollowed out earth, brickwork enclosing . . . nothing. The air of long ago: we can breathe it, we do, but gain what? life, breath to go on, and wonderment.

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