Borough folklore often tells of tunnels and secrets beneath the centuries-old brick streets, and believers will be heartened to know the discovery of a mysterious underground room on Church Street, in West Chester, may offer proof.
The room, found on the southeast corner at the intersection of Market and Church streets, was discovered by construction crews during the completion of the Church Street sidewalk project that required the removal of a brick sidewalk.
Borough Public Works Director O’B Laing said contractors discovered the opening Tuesday when they broke through a glass cover that separated the manhole size opening from the room below.
“The excitement was there,” Laing said.
On Wednesday, the public works department sent a camera down into the room.
Inside, the camera captured the interior of a brick room containing a chair, a glass bottle and other debris.
“This had transparent glass in it in the middle of the sidewalk, what we think from the camera is that it was linked to the building on the same side,” Laing said, noting the glass. “That’s what made it unique that was interesting thing about it.”
According to Laing, there is talk the room possibly extended across the street and linked to other buildings.
Now the current site of the Sovereign Bank building, the corner was once home to the Mansion House Hotel.
According to a survey of the hotel from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the hotel was designed for William Everhart who constructed it in 1832. The structure was built as a temperance house and later became a licensed hotel serving as a summer resort for Philadelphia residents.
Originally, the structure was known as the Chester County House before changing names to the Mansion House Hotel in 1846.
The report notes the structure underwent several remodels and alterations throughout the years, but there is no mention of an addition to the east side or of the room.
Laing concluded after investigating the room that it did not appear to be part of the original structure.
A partially exposed basement is mentioned in the reports exterior architectural description, which could indicate a purpose for the particular space.
The hotel was demolished in 1972.
“I was trying to see if I could find some vintage wine, but I didn’t see any,” Laing joked.
Instead of filling the space, Laing said the department will bridge the opening and reinforce it with a concrete slab before replacing the brick sidewalk.
No further excavation of the room is intended at this time.
Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of the borough’s Business Improvement District, said the space is definitely a curiosity.
Johnstone took the opportunity to witness the excavation Wednesday and confirmed the lore of West Chester, which suggests a series of tunnels under the streets, particularly at that intersection.
He said in talking with other residents, when the Mansion House came down a number of strange rooms were found they didn’t know were there.
In addition to the stories of tunnels, rumors in the borough point to its use as a possible stop on the Underground Railroad.
According to Johnstone, Everhart was a known abolitionist.
“There is certainly legitimate speculation that there was Underground Railroad activity there,” Johnstone said.
Dissenters argue West Chester was too popular of a place as a larger municipality and would have been a danger to escaped slaves who would have avoided the borough.
However, speculation still exists and Johnstone said if it’s ever demonstrated that activity existed in the borough, spaces like the room could be connected.
Resident Jim Jones, former councilman and West Chester historian, previously studied the intersection and noted a similar room across the street on the Market Street side.
After an additional sidewalk project revealed the room, Jones discovered the space was used by the street level grocery store to load ice and supplies into the basement.
According to Jones, Everhart built up three of the four corners of the intersection back in the 1800s when that corner was the edge of the borough.
“The properties there didn’t start out as what you see there now,” Jones said. “It was a pretty complicated little mix of stuff there.”
Jones couldn’t say if the space had a role in the Underground Railroad and offered it was more likely a space to load supplies into the hotel.
“That’s the first thing everybody says, I can’t say yes or no,” Jones said.
This story was originally published in the Daily Local News and can be read here http://www.dailylocal.com/general-news/20131011/mystery-room-discovered-in-west-chester.