Historic Structures

Basement Description and the Secret Tunnel William Henry Harrison House, Vincennes, Indiana

Almost at the first step down the "basement stairs, interest in Colonial architecture receives a stimulus that never flags throughout a ramble cellar-wise. Here on this reverse side of the upper wall, one sees the wooden pins holding the paneling in place, and also the rough hand hewn timbering overhead. At the foot, looking up, you see the core of the newel post projecting from the floor above anchored by a stout wooden pin.

This room corresponds to the hall above in size and shape. Directly facing the stairway, is the win&owless space, originally arched over with bricks, still showing on the side walls where the arch rested. Many of us remember when fragments of the arch remained, enough to show the curve of the arc. Due to crumbling of the structure, and pilferings of relic hunters, bit by bit it disappeared.

This has always been known as the "Powder Magazine." In an article appearing in the Vincennes Sun. , March 29, 1886, its author, Miss Annabel Fleming, speaks of this as "An apartment used as a; powder magazine, built in the shape of a Butch oven, protected by heavy iron doors." Even at that time, the arch was partially destroyed and the doors gone, ihe close of her article, of which we will hear again, gives credit for her information to a Mrs. Wolverton, who was a constant visitor during the residence of Governor Harrison, and to Mrs. Mary 0. Pidgeon, the present owner, (1886). Miss Fleming's paper was delivered from the front portico of the historic house to the Southern teachers' Association.

Another article on March 11, same year, by C. Walter Barr, also speaks of the "powder magazine in the form of a Dutch oven, and that the ceiling over it, and in fact throughout the basement, was made fire proof by a daubing of mud and straw on Lathing."

Many today discount the magazine explanation for this arched compartment, saying that Harrison would never have stored gun powder in a building that housed his wife and children. On the other hand, if he; feared and prepared for Indian attack a store of powder in the basement would have been far more useful than in an outbuilding. Many features about the house bear out the idea of preparation for defense. If not used as a safe and dry repository for powder, imagination has never figured out a better or more plausible; reason for its construction.

On the left, as you leave the stairway, is a large spare room, well lighted, brick floored, as were all the basement floors save one, and with an open fireplace, now sealed up. Here, one of the two windows, like most of the cellar -windows, shows in its upper sill the sockets that held the stout wooden or iron bars that protected from marauders or incursions of stray animals. The lov/er sills have long since been replaced. Some think that these windows were for defense, commanding as they do all approaches to the house, hut there is no evidence that they were used for other than light and ventilation.

This room is known as the children's schoolroom, As the rooms above were constantly or frequently occupied by prominent men deliberating on weighty affairs of state, and also were often filled by brilliant social gatherings, both in the time of Harrison, and later in the time of his son, John Cleves Symmes Harrison, (quoting George Green in his history of Vincennes), it is not unnatural that the children would be relegated to below stairs for study and play.

A second room back of this offers for inspection another open fireplace, the flue now sealed, one outside window, and an inner window opening into the space back of this room, llo satisfactory explanation is given of the use of this room. It might have been a store room, but more probably was a servants sleeping quarters.

Back of this room and the hall, in a long transverse, windowless space, underlies what was originally an open court. Until recent years, this room had a dirt floor, the only one in the basement. Here is seen overhead one of the priceless black walnut beams, a good example of the massiveness of the supporting beams used in construction, though far shorter than many hidden by plaster in upper ceilings. Here in this room is the traditional site of the "dungeon," supposedly used "for detention of refractory servants or prisoners of war." One man in town said that he remembered the dungeon, and described it as a very small room about five feet by eight, but when asked to visit the house to locate its site, he said that he would not be able to do so, as his memory of it was so hazy, and he might have it mixed up with something else. As so small a cell would be worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta, it is safe to presume that the dungeon was some form of closet that grape-vine gossip has elevated to the dignity of a cell. Quoting Miss Fleming's article, "Hear the center of the basement is a stone windowless dungeon, though for what purpose is not known." If there was such a cell or closet, it must have been at one end or other of this room under the open court, low, a very modern furnace occupies one end of this room,

Beyond this and under the secondary house, came the servants' kitchen and dining room, There is an outside entrance to the kitchen for the use of the servants, and a second opening, used now as a coal chute, that is comparatively modern. The fireplace is the only one in the house that is exactly as it was in Harrison's time. The original hand-wrought crane is still anchored in the brickwork. It is needless to say that this open fireplace is a prized possession.

In the dining room alongside the kitchen is a builtin cupboard, at least one shelf of which is the original poplar board put in at the time of building. The windows here and in the kitchen show the hand rived finish, and one, the hand split laths in the under surface of the upper casing, leading one to the conclusion that the plaster of the wall was carried over the entire casing, presumably to fire-proof the woodwork. There was a well or spring in this room as well as from the kitchen to the dark, transverse space already described.

Returning to the hallway and the foot of the stairs, one turns to the right into two more rooms. The front one is small, has an open fireplace, now sealed, two windows showing sockets for bars, and in the comer a bricked-up drain. This has always been called the wine room. As in Harrison's time nearly every home made wine, it is probable that this Virginia gentleman made provision for its manufacture at Grouseland. Mrs. Harrison was a very pious woman, and might have discouraged the use of wine. This room might have been used for laundry work, the fireplace, the drain, and the well in the adjoining room making this practibable.

But it is the larger room that intrigues the imagination. The outer wall curves in a long arc, harmonizing with the sweeping bay of the rooms above. In this bay, are two windows, the place of the third being occupied by a second outside entrance, possibly for the purpose of carrying firewood or supplies. Northeast of the center of the room was another well, filled and sealed. The two wells show the house was well equipped with water to withstand siege.

"The secret tunnel" has always been associated with this room. The gap in the foundation stones of the northeast wall, (the rear wall,) the slight recess in the brickwork above, and the stout walnut lintel still overhead, show conclusively that an opening of some kind was there once.

Many scout the idea of a tunnel; others rise up in its defense. Three historians, Henry Oauthorn, Doctor Smith and George Green, place no credence in the tunnel, magazine or dungeon, though Green credits the last. Miss Fleming was silent on the subject of the tunnel. Some of the older inhabitants of the town smile when it is discussed, and frankly say there never was one. On the other hand many claim to hare seen it.

Calling at the home of John Thompson, grandson of the man who made the bricks for the house, this information was received. He knew there was a tunnel, though he never saw it. His wife, Sally Ackerly Thompson, said that she had played in it while the Pidgeon family lived there; that in the game of hide-and-seek it was a favorite hiding place. She had been through it to the River end, where there was a heavy iron door to keep out the water in time of flood. . The entrance was in the Northeast wall and was arched over, but she could not remember the construction of the tunnel, whether of logs or brick or stone, as she was very young at the time.

Mr. Edward Yocum says that he saw the entrance to the tunnel when he was a lad of about sixteen. He used to visit in the house then owned by Flavius Pidgeon. There were steps leading down, but they were dark, damp and dirty, so he felt no desire to explore. Unfortunately for his evidence, he places this entrance in the southwest corner of the wine room. When repairs were made, some bricks were removed from the flooring, and some digging done, but no trace of steps was found. One can only think that his memory played him false.

Many remember that Mr. -Sari Buck told that he had played in the tunnel when he and Flavius Pidgeon were boys together and that the entrance was in the back wall of the room usually associated with it. Six years ago, in response to a notice in the paper asking for information on this subject, a Mr. William Schultx gave this story to Mrs. Leo Schultheis. When a boy of eight or ten or twelve, he had an appointment to meet a group of boys on the river front. While waiting for them, sitting on the bank, above the tunnel exit, which he described as a heavy wooden door set in a low brick foundation, he jumped down on this sloping door, which-proved rotten. It broke and let him drop into a pit. The steps leading up out of this hole were rotted away, so he could not get out. He waited for the boys to come to help him out. £hey did not come. Knowing of the tunnel, he started through it to the house, coming into this room with the bay side, and through the back wall..

In later years, when the Water Company made excavation for the standpipe in 1886, he and Hiram Foulks and another man were standing by when the workmen broke into this old tunnel. At the time, he went through again to the house. His impression was that he walked down an incline for a while, and then upgrade again. He further stated that the Water Company opened the tunnel to the river, filled it in, and threw the bricks of the exit into the concrete foundation of the standpipe. He did not know whether they filled in any on the side of the Mansion.

He gave this description of the construction of the tunnel. The sides were a solid row of vertical logs, split in half, flat side in; the roof half logs with the flat side down; and a floor of similar logs, flat side up. He went to the river side with Mrs. Sehultheis and showed where the tunnel came out near a tree, but whether the tree now there, is the one of his youth is doubtful. Inquiry in the tfoulkes family found they do not remember their father talking of this experience. An afternoon at the Sun Office, looking over the files of the year 1886, discovered no busy reporter on the job. There were occasional notices of progress of work, but no mention of the incident narrated above.

At a time of recent repairs, a few bricks were removed from the panel in this back wall and some digging done, but nothing of value in the way of proof was found, except that the soil seemed to have been filled in and would cave in ahead of the shovel, according to Sam Kirk, the Contractor. Also a trench was dug in the yard, hoping to cut the line of the tunnel, but nothing was found. The wall was sealed up again after this inadequate search, waiting until . such time as greater funds or interest invite the adventurer to exploration.

A Mr. Sam Harding told to Mr. Donald Cummins that when the excavation was made for the Water Works, they broke into the old tunnel'. He does not remember whether Mr. Harding told that he went into it, or whether the digging was for the standpipe or for some other part of the buildings. He suggested that I talk to Mr. George Herrin. Mr. Herrin said that he had often heard his friend Harding tell this same story, and he is emphatic in his belief that there was a tunnel. One time he himself was exploring along the river front, and found some bricks that high water had washed out of the exit.

Also, Mr. Henry Gravel, who used to live south of town, told to airs, George McCoy that there was a tunnel, that he had been in it with another boy, playing on the water front. They found this opening and went through the tunnel until they came to a wooden door, when they went back.

All of these stories sound very convincing to those who wish to find confirmation of the tunnel, and they find encouragement from the very discrepancies in the various accounts of it. But honesty compels one to admit that those who smile over the idea, smile on.

As the Mansion was built for a fortress as well as for a home, and as Indian troubles were not abated for many years, it is plausible that the tunnel was built for a means of escape to the river, as tradition has always given it.

In connection with the basement, one. may be pardoned for mentioning the ''Palisade." Quoting Miss Fleming's article of 1886, "A palisade of catalpa posts guarded the river front , behind which a small force could do effective work in case of need. Quite recently, one of these posts was dug up by State Geologist Collett and found to be in remarkably good condition." Barr also refers to the poplar palisade that had aroused the interest of the geologists.

Through the courtesy of Miss Kitchell, Librarian, inquiry was made at the State Library in regard to this. There is nothing about it in Mr. Collett's report. However, in a Geological Survey for the year 1873, (pages 564-365), is this interesting report:- "President Harrison on his visit to Vincennes in 1840, publicly called attention to the fact that a picket fence built by him along the river front of his former residence, was in good order after forty year's service. This fence later was cut away for firewood, but on examination, the portion of the posts (Mulberry and Catalpa) buried in the earth, was found to be as sound as if cut yesterday. Catalpa posts set by Harrison about the Governor's house in 1808 were taken up, Mr. Pidgeon informs us, a few years ago, and being sound, were reset in another place."

In searching for first hand evidence of any of the debatable features of the basement, I talked with Mr. Edward Smith, one of our oldest citizens. His testimony was all negative, although he had never been in the basement in his youth. But he distinctly remembers the posts on the River front. thinking that people had confused Harrison's fence with this so-called palisade. I asked him if the posts he saw were part of this fence. He said they v^ere not; that they were upright posts on the river front, and that he judged they were put there to protect the bank from the encroachments ox the river, and not for military purposes. A similar row was planted in front of the fort (Fort Sackviile, now the site of the George Rogers Clark Memorial). He did not think they were dignified with the name of ''Palisades" in former years. His memory coupled with the reports gives credence to the "Palisades," whatever their object.