Tunnel vision: Boring into a local myth

Separating myth from reality about Lindsay's underground tunnels

By Ian McKechnie

An ancient-looking lightbulb hangs in the tunnel at the Flato Academy Theatre, just below the auditorium. This tunnel is one of a few passageways in town that might have inspired the longstanding myth of Lindsay's "huge underground tunnel system." Photo: Ian McKechnie.

On July 30, 2016, an intriguing post appeared on Facebook. “Apparently Lindsay has a huge underground tunnel system,” the message read. “It’s a shame they don’t open it up to the public; [it] would make a great tourist attraction.”

As is typical on social media, this post was followed by a slew of comments, each adding another angle to the tunnel story: “I believe they went to the former arsenal factory, to the armoury, town hall, and a few other places of interest,” speculated one person. “There are miles and miles [of tunnels] down there,” declared another. “They were designed to move the ammo from the old Trent [Rubber] plant that was originally the ammo plant to the armouries and over to the old mill etc. They run all over town.” One individual, with a flair for the dramatic, insisted that these tunnels “were like the tunnels from the underground base at North Bay to the launch sites for the nukes.”

The stories are widespread and well-known. But what is the truth behind them?

Descending into history

The tale likely traces its origins back to the First World War, when the land between Lindsay Street and Albert Street South was redeveloped by the federal government for use as a munitions factory.

The Dominion Arsenal was in operation by 1917, and an underground tunnel system did indeed offer a convenient and clandestine means of moving both munitions and personnel between the various buildings on the property. A 1922 description of the site makes mention of a passageway measuring just over 353 feet in length and a little over 13 feet in width that connected the arsenal’s boiler house, bullet plant, case plant, machine shop, rolling mill, and store house. Farther south was an underground rifle range measuring some 1,800 feet in length, six feet in width, and seven feet in height. Both the passageway(s) and the rifle range are clearly indicated on plans of the property dating to 1926.

Just beyond this fence and below the ground was once an underground rifle range measuring 1,800 feet in length. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

In the spring of 1965, Rick Harding – who incidentally lives in the arsenal superintendent’s former residence on Lindsay Street South – was invited by a friend to explore the then-abandoned tunnels.

They made their way through an overgrown field to an old guardhouse, where a set of steps led to a cavernous tunnel built from reinforced concrete designed to withstand the shock of an explosion. Harding and his friend made their way westwards through this underground tunnel – almost certainly the old rifle range – which was flooded with water. “When I finally got to the end of the tunnel, the water was almost neck-deep, and in that it was almost like an Indiana Jones movie,” Harding recalls. “There were live rats, dead rats, leaves, branches, mud, and really tepid water.”

By the late 1960s, the former arsenal was home to a rubber factory, and Harding remembers that a huge set of steel doors in one of the buildings led directly to the tunnels below. “For the next five or six years I started exploring them as much as I could,” Harding says.

Rick Harding points to an escape hatch he salvaged from the old Dominion Arsenals site. The hatch covered an emergency exit from tunnels which once connected various buildings on the arsenal property. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

The vast tunnel system that piqued Harding’s curiosity more than half a century ago has since been demolished or filled in – keeping inquisitive trespassers out of what were surely dangerous places. Little to nothing remains. Still, lurking amid the tall grass beyond James Street are earthen depressions suggestive of tunnel infrastructure. Heavily overgrown and no longer accessible, these holes were apparently used by arsenal staff to leave the tunnel system in the event of an emergency. Harding salvaged a metal hatch from one of these escape routes, and today displays it in his yard.

Sealing up a rumour

The Dominion Arsenal tunnels are thus well-documented – both on paper and in anecdote. But they were confined to the arsenal property and never went beyond it. So, what about the “miles and miles” of other tunnels that allegedly “run all over town?”

A persistent rumour holds that there is (or was) a tunnel linking LCVI, the Victoria Park Armoury, and the old Lindsay town hall, at 180 Kent Street. Several LCVI alumni claim to have been told yarns to this effect over the years, seemingly verifying the story’s accuracy.

Unsurprisingly, this rumour probably stems from exaggerated facts.

According to Clarence Keenan, who worked in maintenance at LCVI from 1969 through 2012, a series of utility tunnels were indeed constructed underneath the school’s oldest addition, which dates to 1953. “These tunnels are about five feet high by four feet wide, constructed of concrete, and carried electrical supply, steam supply, and condensate return water supply,” Keenan explains. Subsequent additions to LCVI in 1963 called for more utility tunnels to service the cafeteria kitchen, shop rooms, and small gymnasium. Thus, while subterranean passages certainly exist at LCVI, Keenan reminds us that “these tunnels are not connected, and never were, to any other site (in town).”

Darrin Leuty, who has spent years in maintenance at the armoury, backs up Keenan’s statements about the LCVI-armoury-town hall tunnel rumour. “No, there were never any tunnels under the armoury,” Leuty says conclusively. “It was the first thing I looked for when I received the keys. There is no evidence on any outside wall of anything (that appears to be) bricked in.”

Simple logic also rules out a tunnel running between LCVI, the armoury, and the old town hall. These buildings were constructed at different times, by different entities, for different purposes: why might high school students need to access the council chambers under the veil of subterranean secrecy?

Even if a tunnel had in fact been built to link the three facilities, a peacetime excavation project on this scale would have aroused considerable interest in the local press, and eyewitness accounts of the work would have been firmly ingrained in the community’s collective memory for years thereafter. Yet there is no evidence that this happened. Moreover, tunnel-boring between the high school and 180 Kent Street West would have likely disturbed basements in residential properties on Albert and Sussex Streets, not to mention municipal infrastructure like sewers and water pipes.

1958 site plans of the Ross Memorial Hospital depict a pair of intersecting utility tunnels linking the old hospital buildings, nurses’ residence, and boiler room. Plans courtesy of the Ross Memorial Hospital.

What else lies beneath?

If the arsenal tunnels have been accounted for, and if a one kilometre-long tunnel between LCVI and 180 Kent Street never existed, what else might have spurred tales about tunnels?

Quite possibly, they might have been inspired by the existence of short and frankly unexciting passageways connected with specific buildings or places at either end of downtown Lindsay.

In the west, a couple of intersecting utility tunnels once linked the Ross Memorial Hospital’s original 1902 facility with its nurses’ residence (opened in 1911), an addition dating to 1931, and an underground boiler room. As was the case at LCVI, these tunnels fulfilled a primarily utilitarian function; namely, to carry steam from the boiler into the rest of the hospital for heating purposes.

That being said, the hospital’s tunnel system was apparently large enough to accommodate people. “I can attest to having been in the hospital sometime in July or August of 1965 when, upon exiting the morgue situated across the hall from the lab on the lower level, several young nurses hurried down the hall and around the corner into what my father said was a passage under the parking lot between the main hospital and the nurses’ residence,” recalls former mortician Jim Mackey.

Mackey’s recollections are verified in site plans from 1958, which clearly show a pair of tunnels, demarcated by dotted lines, leading from one part of the hospital to another.

Immediately north of the hospital, the former Lindsay fairgrounds also boasted a set of “tunnels.” Built of concrete and opened for use around 1945, these passageways were not technically tunnels in the traditional sense; they were more like underpasses designed to facilitate the safe passage of pedestrians and vehicular traffic beneath the racing oval. (Designed with public safety in mind, it is somewhat ironic that, after being flooded with rainwater, they posed a drowning risk.) Like much of the former fairgrounds, these underpasses survive only in the recollections of older residents.

This stone-lined tunnel links a maintenance closet at the west end of the Academy Theatre with the green room, beneath the stage, in the east. Photo: Ian McKechnie.

At the opposite end of town, an ancient-looking tunnel runs below the auditorium of the Academy Theatre. The Advocate was given exclusive access to this sloping, stone-lined passage, which connects a maintenance closet just off the women’s washroom in the west with the green room, beneath the stage, in the east. As with tunnels at LCVI and the hospital, this appears to have been designed to service plumbing and electrical infrastructure – though at one time, it may well have enabled a cast and crew from long ago to move from one part of the theatre to the other without having to walk through the auditorium or duck outside. Today, the tunnel’s eastern entrance is sealed, while assorted clutter occupies the entrance at the west end, out of sight and out of mind.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Other tunnels may yet exist within Lindsay. It seems probable, though, that the details of two or three tunnels have been conflated, and their geographical extent exaggerated.

Our town’s “huge underground tunnel system” makes for a good story – but a story it remains.

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