Cities all around the world are full of tunnels. Often the tunnels that characterize one city are quite different from what characterizes another city. Many of the tunnels under Paris are miles upon miles of quarries that the city has expanded over (and now parts of Paris threaten to collapse into). In London, there is one of the largest networks of tunnels including many secret military tunnels. New York City has secret tunnels while Los Angeles has abandoned speakeasy tunnels. But what about Florida?
It turns out that Florida has its fair share of tunnels too. The Floridan city of Ybor City is home to some long-lost tunnels whose purpose is still something of a mystery.
History Of Ybor City
Ybor City is a historic neighborhood just out of downtown Tampa in Florida. Ybor City was founded in the 1880s. It was populated mostly by thousands of immigrants generally from Cuba, Italy, and Spain, and was the home of cigar factories that produced hundreds of millions of cigars annually.
- Founded: In The 1880s
- Populated: By Immigrants From Cuba, Italy, and Spain
One thing that makes Ybor unique in the South, is that it was a town that was almost entirely populated and owned by immigrants to America. It gave the nickname to Tampa of "Cigar City".
- Nickname: Tampa Was Known as "Cigar City"
The neighborhood suffered in the Great Depression as demand dropped off for cigars and then even more after WW2. By the late 1970s, the neighborhood was left almost abandoned. It has been undergone the process of gentrification in the last 50 years.
Discovery And Urban Legends Of The Tunnels
With the new development in the neighborhood mysterious tunnels have been discovered. In 2018 a tunnel at 12th Street and Sixth Avenue was discovered as development commenced for Masonite International.
- Discovered: One Part Was Discovered During Construction In 2018
According to Abandoned Florida, there are many urban legends about these tunnels - like they were smuggling tunnels. But still, their purpose remains highly debated.
- Urban Legend: They Were Used To Smuggle Liquor
One school of thought is that the bootleggers or the Tampa mafia dug the tunnels in order to smuggle liquor around the city. Scott Dietsche's book “Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld” he claims,
“Under the crowded streets of Ybor is a series of tunnels, the use of which has never been fully documented. The tunnels run under some of the early gaming palaces and down along the streets toward the port of Tampa.”
There is not much information as to just how extensive these tunnels are, but in 2018 Fox 13 was given a private tour at the historic house, Seminole Heights. It was built in 1925 and there seem to be blocked entrances to what the homeowner claims are tunnels. One of which runs to Hillsborough River and the other towards Ybor City.
- Hearsay: There Are Unverified Claims Of City Residents That The Tunnels Are Extensive
Her neighbor claimed to have gone into the tunnels and got scared after walking for 20 minutes and then turned back. Of course, this is more in the domain of hearsay, but sadly hard evidence of exactly what is below Ybor City is hard to come by.
Historians Think There Where Stormwater And Sewer Tunnels
Most historians seem to think that these tunnels were built as stormwater and sewer systems. If that is true, it's amazing how records of basic city infrastructure can be lost and forgotten. Indeed they do resemble other dual-use sewers of that period.
- Height: Five Feet
- Width: Five Feet
- Built Of: Construstructed Brick with Wooden Floors
- Date Built: Likely Between 1885 and the Late 1890s
The extent of these tunnels remains unclear. There are claims that they crisscrossed the whole city. Parts of the tunnels are being discovered over time.
In 2011 a portion of the tunnels was found under the corner of 15th and 7th Avenue only after heavy rains flooded it. That was where the Blue Ribbon Supermarket used to stand - although it was originally a Post Office. Does that add more questions as to why would smugglers build an entrance into a federal building? Unless of course some of the federal workers there were involved in the bootlegging.
- Corrupt: Tampa Was One Of the Most Corrupt Cities In America
Another aspect that makes it unlikely the underground world of bootleggers built the tunnels is that at that time, Tampa was so corrupt that mobsters hardly needed to hide. A 1912 Jacksonville Newspaper wrote of the city,
“Tampa is reeking in crime, and gamblers operate openly. Tampa is the most wicked city in the U.S.”