This story was originally published Nov. 21, 2017.
Rumors persist of a tunnel leading beneath the streets of Lancaster, connecting the Lancaster County Courthouse with the county prison more than six blocks — nearly three-quarters of a mile — away.
Curiosity about the legendary tunnel motivated LancasterOnline readers to choose the question in a recent round of voting for the ongoing We the People series — a reader-powered journalism project through which readers submit questions and then vote which one deserves investigation.
Is there an underground tunnel from the Lancaster County Courthouse to the Lancaster prison?
The short answer is — no such tunnel exists.
But there are good reasons why people believe it’s there.
Not everyone heard the rumor
Brett Hambright, spokesman for the district attorney’s office on the fifth floor of the courthouse, said he polled the staff and didn’t find anyone who heard the rumor of a courthouse-to-prison tunnel.
President Judge Dennis Reinaker also hadn’t heard it.
“I’m pretty sure there is no such thing,” he said.
Marianne Heckles, a research assistant at LancasterHistory.org, said it’s new to her, too.
There were vaults for cold storage under the city’s old breweries, she said. “And there’s the sewer system and the storm drain system. But I don’t know if there are any other tunnels.”
A historian poses a theory
Heckles said she couldn’t unearth any evidence of a tunnel’s existence.
“As far as I know, there aren't any tunnels running between the courthouse and the county prison,” she said in a recent email.
“Of course, I could be wrong,” Heckles said. “But I somehow doubt it. It would have to be one VERY long tunnel.”
She guessed the rumor might have started because the courthouse and prison were built at around the same time — in the early 1850s.
She suggested the notion might have sprung from the time when the courthouse and jail were much closer together.
The old courthouse formerly stood in Penn Square, right where the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands today. The jail was at the current site of the Fulton Opera House.
“I’m just speculating, and I have no way of knowing if there ever was a tunnel between the two, but it would be a much shorter distance to cover,” she said.
Does the warden know?
“It’s always been a rumor since I’ve been here,” said Warden Cheryl Steberger. “Inmates would be escorted down to the courthouse via this tunnel.”
It sounds convenient, but that doesn’t mean it’s real.
“There’s no evidence of it ever existing,” Steberger said.
She turned the question over to day shift commander Lt. Benjamin Lefever III, a “real history buff” who’s “always digging into the historical side of the prison.”
Lefever set the record straight.
Digging for the truth
“There are absolutely rumors about the tunnel, but not here at 625 E. King St.,” Lefever said.
When Lancaster was formed as a county in 1729, he explained, the first jail was a log building on the property of the first county sheriff, Robert Barber, in Wright’s Ferry (now Columbia).
When the plans for the city were drawn up in 1730, he said, a plot was allocated for a jail at King and Prince streets, as Heckles said.
The work house, as it was called, wasn’t built until 1763, he said — the same year the Paxton gang massacred the last of the Conestoga Indians, who were sequestered there for their own protection.
Previously, Lefever said, “several undesignated buildings” were used to house prisoners in Lancaster.
Anyway, he said, the work house was torn down and a stone prison was built at the same site in 1774-75. And there it stayed until it was razed and the Fulton Opera House took its place.
“There was rumored to be a tunnel from the 1774 prison to the original Court House on Penn Square,” Lefever said.
“To the best of my knowledge, there is no written documentation of this tunnel,” he said. “Although our current prison has a rich history and many historical sections hidden from view, when it was originally built in 1850, there was nothing around us to have a tunnel connected to.”
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