Wednesday, August 12, 2020

What Lies Beneath - The Underground Town of Ellinwood, Kansas

By Kathy Kovach

A mere ten miles from where I was born in the heart of Kansas is the quirky town of Ellinwood, population 2,100. Ellinwood has a buried past, literally.

Wolf Hotel

The Emporium

A drive into town reveals a typical mid-west Norman Rockwell vibe. But to see her secret, one must park, head over to the Wolf hotel, and pay for a guided tour that begins across the street at the Emporium. The tour leads you a dozen steps down to a historic underground town.

Santa Fe Trail Marker

With the claim staked in the late 1800s, Ellinwood was built along the Santa Fe Trail when it was certain the Santa Fe Railroad would be coming through the area. Even though the founders weren’t of German descent, they developed the town with that country’s influence in mind to draw in the influx of German/Austrian immigrant buyers. This is where it is believed the idea of subterranean living sprang from. Case in point, Oppenheim, Germany has at least 25 miles of underground tunnels used for food and wine storage and later for hiding residents during the Thirty Years War in the 1600s.

Back to Kansas. The tour only shows part of the original town, but at one time, it encompassed the entire business district, running for two blocks on both sides of the street with connecting tunnels down side streets. A tunnel under the street also made it possible for women to cross without getting their dresses muddied. 

Tunnel under the Emporium

Apparently, the tunnels had been created to shuttle coal to the various shops and trades. Eventually, natural gas took the place of the more expensive coal, but the underground businesses still thrived. They catered mostly to the men, an elaborate mancave, as it turns out.

The dark underbelly of sweet Ellinwood retreated to the tunnels and some businesses took on a more rascally bent. Prohibition spawned eleven saloons as they operated away from prying eyes. A speakeasy still operates under the Wolf Hotel, albeit legally now.

The Underground Saloon/Bar

Today, the tour includes a harness shop and Jung’s Barber Shop with the original floors, wallpaper, and barber mirror—complete with bullet holes in the walls. There was also a steam laundry where a patron could leave his clothes while he soaked in one of the two tubs. Other establishments subsurface were Wolitz Shoe Shop, Petz Meat Storage, Joe’s Snack Counter, and the Drummer’s Sample Room, where traveling salesmen displayed their wares. There was also, at one time, a library.

Harness Shop

Example of bathtub used in Barber shop

My pictures don't do Underground Ellinwood justice. Please visit this You Tube site for a short tour.

With the thick limestone block walls, the tunnels also provided perfect shelter from tornadoes. They were also utilized when, during WWII, many of the German residents were forced underground to escape scrutinization as Nazi sympathizers.

I had the privilege to visit Ellinwood’s underground town several years ago with family members, some having resided in nearby Great Bend most of their lives. None of us knew this place existed. I’m not even sure how we found out about it. At that time, the official Underground Tour hadn’t been established. It’s possible that the original woman who rediscovered the tunnels was the one giving us our tour. Adrianna Dierolf inherited the Dick building from her grandfather Mathias Dick. She and her husband Dan decided to restore the underground businesses for tours. She had to convince the town not to fill in the tunnels under her building as they had started to with the rest of the town in an extensive sidewalk renovation project. I’m so glad she remained true to her roots.

If you find yourself in Ellinwood, Kansas, do stop in for a dose of history. And on your way by Great Bend, hale a hearty howdy to my family who still lives there.

A secret. A key. Much was buried on the Titanic, but now it's time for resurrection.

Follow two intertwining stories a century apart. 1912 - Matriarch Olive Stanford protects a secret after boarding the Titanic that must go to her grave. 2012 - Portland real estate agent Ember Keaton-Jones receives the key that will unlock the mystery of her past... and her distrusting heart.
To buy: Amazon

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother, though much too young for that. Kathleen is a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.


  1. Kathy, this is so interesting. I am a bit confused though. The man in the You Tube clip says that the tunnels were utilized until about 1920. In your article you say the tunnels were used during WWII for people of German descent to hide from people who thought they were Nazi sympathizers. Did you mean to say WWI, since WWII was about twenty years past 1920? My dad's family had to be on the defensive from people in their Ohio town who thought they might be sympathizers to Germany given the last name of Meyer. The "s" was added to their last name in hopes it would sound less German. Great article and it makes me want to visit there if I ever find myself in Kansas!

    1. Hi Pam! I probably should have included a disclaimer that the facts weren't consistent. All of my research indicated the later time, so I went with that. It's possible that the shops closed around 1920, but the tunnels were still there. Although the speakeasy under the hotel would be during the Prohibition. In any case, it's fascinating history.

  2. Wow! I would love to see this! Thanks for posting.

  3. A very interesting post! I definitely learned something today.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Best wishes