|Soft spot near cemetery. By Paul Clancy|
In the backyard of the historic Carraway House in Kempsville, beside a small stream, there’s a
small family cemetery bearing grave stones of that long-ago family. And next to one of the markers is a low spot filled with leaves.
“Don’t step on it ‘cause you’ll sink up to your knees,” Laura Wenslaff warns, and you back off, although unable to resist testing it. Sure enough, it’s soft.
The house on South Witchduck Road, one of the oldest in Virginia Beach, was built in 1734. It’s now the office for Home Realty, and Wenslaff, the principal broker, owns it. When she bought the building seven years ago the previous owner said there had been a tunnel there. And then she met Deborah Berry, a longtime Kempsville resident who told her quite a story.Berry joins us for a walk. A dog barks as we head west along the creek bed through dense woods, then turn left near Overland Road, passing another small cemetery.
In the summer of 1968, Berry says, just after her family moved to Kempsville, her brother, Ron Howard, discovered a hatch cover with a metal ring behind the Carraway House. When they opened it, all they saw was stairs leading into a black hole. She wasn’t about to explore it but her 13-year-old brother didn’t hesitate.
What he found was an elaborate timber-supported tunnel. As he crawled, the passageway turned left and, when it passed the other cemetery, he could see the ends of caskets. Finally, he saw daylight and emerged at the back of Pleasant Hall, a historic mansion.
|Tunnel exit? Near Pleasant Hall|
by Paul Clancy
Ever since the discovery of the tunnel there has been speculation: that maybe Dunmore, fearing for his safety, had it dug as an escape route. He’d be able to emerge near the creek – then a much wider and deeper artery of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River – and make his getaway. Or that it was used by escaping slaves who would hide out in the tunnel during the day and escape by boat at night.As we follow the tunnel route, Berry talks about her brother’s tunnel obsession. Three times he crawled through it and three times the police caught him. “’You need to keep this boy out of there,’” she quotes the officer. “’He’s going to get hurt. If it collapses, he’s dead.’”
Soon after, a dump truck loaded with dirt pulled up and the entrance was closed.We walk through a parking lot, cross a street and then a field behind Pleasant Hall and come to a grove of trees. In the middle is a swampy area where the tunnel may have exited.
Wenslaff has tried to find answers. At one point the city suggested using ground-penetrating radar to determine how much of the tunnel still exists, but nothing came of it. She invited Norfolk State University history professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander to take a look to see if graduate students could treat it as an archaeological dig. That didn’t work, either.She remains determined to find out. “You don’t build something like that, something that extensive. Just for the fun of it,” she says. “Hopefully we can open it up and find the absolute truth.”
The truth may be that there’s not much history there, at least not the ancient kind. Virginia Beach historian Stephen Mansfield says Dunmore wasn’t at Pleasant Hall long enough and had nothing to fear from locals whom he had soundly whipped and forced to sign loyalty oaths.And Newby-Alexander says there’s no way slaves could have had a secret escape route under the noses of white owners.
But she has another theory: “I suspect it was a twentieth century type of gin-running.”
Hmmm. During wild white lightnin’ days 50 or 60 years ago, some rural areas of Princess Anne County abounded in liquor stills – and operators who made enough money to afford hidden passageways.Mark Reed, the city’s historic resource coordinator, says the question is what possible use an underground passageway might serve. “Nothing logical comes to mind unless there was something outside of the law that was occurring. Extralegal activities might be of interest.”
So Dunmore’s escape route it probably wasn’t. But escape, at a much later date, was very much on someone’s mind.