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The Tunnels of Downtown Tulsa

BY Michael Staires, http://www.mstaires.com

Even most Tulsans are unaware of the honeycomb of tunnels that run under the streets of downtown Tulsa. Almost all of these tunnels are for public use, allowing folks to walk from their parking garage to their offices or apartments without having to go up on the street level and be exposed to the elements.

However, there is one tunnel downtown that’s not for public use. This private tunnel isn’t widely known and is closed to pedestrian traffic today. The tunnel was built for a very specific purpose by a very concerned early day Tulsan. 

In the early 1930’s the baby boy of aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and killed in New Jersey. This prompted the famous and wealthy from all across the country to think much more seriously about their own safety and that of their families.

In Tulsa, it was no different. One of the wealthiest men in town was Waite Phillips. He had already built the Philtower, where his office was. He was in the process of moving his family from Villa Philbrook to the brand new Philcade Building downtown.

Every day, as he crossed back and forth through the intersection of 5th Street and Boston Avenue between his home, his office and his bank, he was on full alert, scanning for pending danger.

He called some friends who were miners in Nevada and asked them if they could come to Tulsa to build a couple of underground tunnels to allow for safe passing between his buildings. He wanted a tunnel going under Boston Avenue connecting the Philtower to his bank on the northwest corner of the intersection. He wanted another tunnel dug under 5th Street connecting the Philcade Building to the Philtower.

The tunnel crossing under Boston Avenue has long since been filled in and covered over, but the tunnel running under 5th Street between the two buildings is still there. If you descend the marble steps into the basement of the Philtower and work your way around the corner at the end of the hall, you’ll see the imposing heavy steel doors leading to the abandoned tunnel.

With a heavy creak and groan, the door opens to reveal a dark and musty passage running south to the Philcade Building. In the shadows at the end of the shaft you can make out the door leading to the Philcade basement, which is kept locked today to keep people from using this as a passway between the two buildings. The tunnel is only about seven feet tall and no wider than six feet. The gloom is accentuated by the arched ceiling that seems to close in around you.

The tiles have been pulled up but you can still see the patchwork of tile and grout that used to cover the floor of the tunnel. The faded green paint on the walls peels away in the heavy dank air. Patches of new concrete can be seen along the length of the tunnel, an effort to repair the effects of the decades and the damp on the crumbling walls. The few florescent lights along the ceiling are barely able to cut through the darkness of the dim space.

You can imagine Waite kissing his wife, Genevieve, goodbye up in the Philcade penthouse each morning and getting in the elevator to descend into the basement. He would cross over through the tunnel into the basement of the Philtower. When the heavy steel door banged closed behind him he would say a silent prayer of thanks, “Phew! Made it safely through another day!”

For help navigating the public tunnels of downtown, check out this article from Urbane Chaos or read “Tulsa down under” from Tulsa People, June 2009.

Story and tour provided by Tours of Tulsa. For more information or to schedule a custom tour, contact Kelly at http://www.toursoftulsa.com/.