An entire town – underground. That’s what the founders of Ellinwood created for themselves in the 1870s. At the time, it was a practical invention. The Santa Fe Trail passed along the south border of town, bringing 100 teams a day through during peak seasons. At 5 men per-wagon team, that traffic translated to about 500 rough-and-tumble men a day rolling in to town. It may have been good for business, but the Ellinwood establishment wanted a way to keep the streets respectable.
The downtown developers came up with the idea to build boardwalks, tunnels and businesses catering to the needs of these traveling men in the basements of their shops. It became a separate town underneath the main street. The idea came from the Ellinwood immigrant’s German past, where underground businesses in their homeland were built to survive rough weather and hard winters. In Kansas, the same idea served to make a town like Ellinwood less “wild” and more respectable, by keeping the wild side under-wraps and underground – literally.
Women and children could roam around up-top “unmolested” on the streets, while those passing-through strangers did their business and went on their way. At its peak there were saloons, bath-houses and barbershops that could all be reached without stepping above the boardwalk. There was even a tunnel out to the brewery to make sure all of those saloons could be easily stocked.
Of course, as life progressed, the West was tamed and wagon trains stopped rolling. These businesses slowly became less practical and were literally forgotten by many of the town folks. Concrete sidewalks replaced the boardwalks, and decades later, most of the tunnels were filled in when the sidewalks began to sag. However, there ARE a few that remain, and they can be visited today.
Our trip into three of the preserved businesses provided a fascinating glimpse into this time. It is a piece of the American West story that I can’t remember seeing anywhere else. While our guide explained that several towns in Kansas had similar undergrounds, Ellinwood is the only place where they have been preserved in this way.While it isn’t a very large area, it IS really interesting and worth a visit if you are in the area. If you are following the Santa Fe Trail, I would definitely put this on your agenda. It provides a unique glimpse into life along the trails. It is very family friendly and the tunnel itself is really fascinating.Great Bend is nearby with some really interesting stops in itself that can make the whole trip worth your while.
Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising three little sunflower boys and a dog named George.