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.
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.
|Example of bathtub used in Barber shop|
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.
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