Rare Fredericksburg tour offers glimpse into what lies beneath (copy)

The Poe family—Ashley (left), Everett, Mason and Ryan—listens to Roger Carson during a tour of the tunnels downtown.

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — People have speculated for years about the mysterious tunnel running underneath George Street’s sidewalk in downtown Fredericksburg.

Did it serve as underground passage for goods unloaded from ships that once docked at the city’s piers? Did nearby businesses use it as storage space? Or could it have been a hiding place for something surreptitious, such as alcohol smuggled in during Prohibition?

Archaeologists from Dovetail Cultural Resources Group are sifting through coarse yellow sand and fine black coal dust hauled up from the tunnel’s floor this week as they hunt for clues. They’ll also do archival research, and will use ground-penetrating radar in a few weeks to find out how far the tunnel actually goes.

So far, the few bits of Chinese porcelain, a chunk of blue and gray pottery, a handful of clay marbles, a Minié ball and a 1827 one-cent coin uncovered in the dig point to a possible mid-19th century date for the tunnel’s construction, said Brad Hatch, Dovetail’s archaeological staff manager.

“But that’s all preliminary,” he was quick to add.

Fredericksburg hired Dovetail to do the dig as part of a broader downtown pedestrian improvement project that will include replacing concrete sidewalks in 20 blocks with brick. Workers have cordoned off the metal doors in the sidewalk near Colonial Cupcake at 206 George St. that open into the tunnel, and brought in a dumpster that the archaeologists are using as they sift through the tunnel’s debris.

Tuesday afternoon, Hatch pulled aside a piece of the bright orange barrier fencing and pointed down into the tunnel. The vaulted brick arches leading to the north and south sides of the tunnel were clearly visible. The ceilings are 6 feet high at their peak, he said, and the tunnel itself is about 10 feet wide. The north side extends 20 feet, while the south side is about 30 feet long.

Coarse sand covers the hard-packed dirt floor on the north branch. Hatch said the sand appears to have been brought in by hand. There are no thin deposits, as would have been the case if it had been left by receding floodwaters over time.

He said this part of the tunnel was excavated some years ago either by Colonial Williamsburg or the College of William and Mary. No one is quite sure which entity did it, but it is known that a French drain was discovered. Now he and his crew are trying to relocate it.

The south side of the tunnel is covered with coal dust. Underneath, Dovetail’s archaeologists uncovered a section of brick flooring. Hatch said they haven’t determined if it extends all the way across the tunnel yet, and speculated that it could have been some sort of platform.

Dovetail will take the artifacts that its crew members find in several 1-meter-square “test units” back to the company’s Spotsylvania County office so they can be cleaned, analyzed and labeled. Findings, along with archival research, will be combined into a preliminary report that should be ready in about two months, said Dovetail President Kerri Barile.

Drafts will be given to city officials and the Virginia Department of Transportation, since the city is using funding through VDOT’s Transportation Alternatives Program to cover 80 percent of the $2.55 million downtown pedestrian enhancement project. The city is picking up the rest of the tab.

Once the report has been edited, copies will be given to such places as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and libraries, and Dovetail will give at least two public presentations, Barile said.

City staff already are considering how to showcase the tunnel, and have turned to Alexandria for inspiration. That city restored the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum’s ice well, and built stairs leading down to a glass cutaway in its side so that visitors can peer into the structure.

“No decisions have been made, but we would like to be able to make our tunnel more visible to visitors,” said Bill Freehling, Fredericksburg’s director of economic development and tourism.

Fredericksburg has also hired Dovetail to examine the slave auction block site at Charles and William streets as part of the downtown pedestrian enhancement project. It will be checking there Monday to see how far down the stone block goes, and they will try to determine when it was installed, Barile said.

The dig site will be filled in, and then the sidewalks at that intersection will be extended as a traffic-calming measure. They will also get ADA compliant curb cuts and crosswalks will be painted on the streets. Several similar sidewalk extensions—or bump-outs—have already been added downtown.

The slave auction block has long been a source of controversy, and the city hired the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience last year to lead communitywide discussions on how best to tell a more complete history of the block and African– Americans in Fredericksburg.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407, cjett@freelancestar.com

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