You probably never heard of Katherine Scarborough. She was a newspaper journalist in an era when women in the profession were rare.

Starting in 1918, she was a feature writer for Maryland’s leading news organization. She did the job for almost 40 years, and when she died in 1960, she was remembered in obituaries as a respected teller of truths.

But Scarborough also cemented one fantastic tale about Annapolis, one that lives on no matter how much others may try to discourage it.

In a July 1953 Baltimore Sun story headlined “Our Burrowing Forefathers,” Scarborough interviewed a retired Navy admiral about a 4-foot-wide, 4½-foot-high chamber uncovered 6 feet below ground during renovations at a downtown liquor store.

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“Rear Adm. Colby Rucker … thinks it may be a portion of a secret passageway blocked during the construction of old Annapolis High School some 30 years ago,” she wrote. “If so, Admiral Rucker says, it was one of numerous tunnels in the little city of long ago. One extended from Reynolds Tavern across Franklin Street to the present Courthouse. No one knows where it came out. And though they have never been located, the legend persists that tunnels extended from the Brice House, the Paca House and Acton.”

It is a legend that historians, archaeologists and preservationists have tried to debunk ever since — that a network of secret tunnels is hidden beneath the centuries-old heart of Annapolis.

“I have worked in Annapolis since 1981 through my archaeological project at the University of Maryland,” archaeologist Mark Leone wrote in an email. “There are no tunnels beneath Annapolis that I have ever seen.”

“I have never figured out why the mythology exists.”

Researcher Sue Steinbrook revives the myth in her forthcoming first book, “Historic Homes of Annapolis.” It’s the result of several years of research, exploring centuries-old Annapolis homes and talking with owners. She’s posted on social media channels about her findings, and in more than a few she asks if this photo or that isn’t a clue that something is under our feet.

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Could all the experts be wrong?

“Tunnels now? They are probably correct that there are no tunnels,” Steinbrook said. “Are there remnants of tunnels that caved in at one point or were blocked off at some point? I can’t discredit it.”

Just as Rucker did 70 years ago, Steinbrook speculates that some were for the smuggling of goods to evade royal tax collectors, or for making an escape when some wealthy landowner found himself on the wrong side of the Revolution.

She’s never actually seen a tunnel, and the idea isn’t the central focus of her book. But she points to others who have chased this idea and come to similar conclusions.

An architectural survey of the Patrick Creagh House mentioned “underground tunnels that were used for smuggling” and ran under East Street to the James Brice House, both built in the mid-18th century. The passage was filled in during construction of a church a century later.

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In 30 years of working on the Chase Lloyd House on Maryland Avenue, Jan Scopel has found plenty of curiosities in the Georgian mansion completed in 1774.

“I’ve had experiences that suggest it,” he said.

There are ghost plots — rooms with walls that don’t end where they logically should — or masonry that makes you wonder if something was covered up. And there was the time Copel heard repeated banging coming through the wall.

“They were driving piles for Hopper Hall at the Naval Academy,” he said.

At the Maryland Inn, tunnels are part of the hotel’s lore, documented on placards in a basement lounge.

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Ken White, general manager of Historic Inns of Annapolis, has no doubts there are tunnels. “Oh, there definitely are,” he said. “We have one in our building.”

On a recent visit, he pointed through a locked gate to a partially lit brick room. He and others suspect it was an opening to a tunnel that connected with nearby St. Anne’s Episcopal Church but collapsed decades ago.

There are a lot of dead ends on the other side of those walls.

Built in 1859, the current St. Anne’s is the third building to stand on Church Circle and is bigger than its predecessors. Maybe the new footprint swallowed an ancient tunnel opening, but after burial chambers were accidentally excavated during renovations in the 1980s and 1990s, the parish paid for ground-penetrating radar.

No tunnels. Just an old oil tank.

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“I’ve been through almost every square foot of that basement,” said Bill Wilbert, chair of the church facilities committee since 1988. “I can’t even imagine where it would go.”

It’s the same at the Hammond Harwood House — a masterpiece by architect William Buckland across the street from Chase Lloyd House. Steinbrook thinks evidence of a connecting tunnel might exist. Recent archeological digs ahead of some exterior improvements, though, found nothing.

“This whole thing was thousands of pounds of bricks and [Buckland] having in his mind that he was going to build this house with a tunnel somewhere doesn’t make any sense to me,” Executive Director Barbara Goyette said.

At the James Brice House, there’s a similar lack of evidence. Michael Day, a preservationist overseeing a yearslong restoration, said archaeological surveys looking for cultural relics left by enslaved people found no signs.

“They were digging in here for hoodoo and voodoo stuff, and they ripped the living daylights out of this place,” Day said during a tour. “You know, it looked like gopher holes everywhere. … No, they didn’t find any tunnels.”

It goes on. Reynolds Tavern? No signs. Mills Fine Wine & Spirits? Not even a basement. The William Paca House and Gardens? No. That discovery in 1953? The engineer told Scarborough, the Sun reporter, that it was a cold storage room sealed off after the arrival of refrigeration. Even the Patrick Creagh House survey couches its tunnels as the stuff of local lore.

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So, what has everyone from Colby Rucker to Sue Steinbrook seen that convinces them there’s a network of secret tunnels awaiting discovery?

Perhaps it’s because there are a few tunnels in Annapolis.

The state of Maryland built a passageway connecting the State House and its office buildings in 1947. It’s still there. Naval Academy graduates sometimes feature tales of an apocryphal network of steam heat tunnels in their stories.

More than that, though, is the way myths survive. Ask one person about tunnels in their basement and the answer is often no — but.

There’s always someone else who knows … something.

During his years digging around in basements and foundations of historic buildings, Leone — whose long-term project Archaeology in Annapolis is considered a definitive dig into the city’s past — came across plenty.

There were vaulted rooms for storage, arches built to support massive brick chimneys, hypocausts where fires were set to generate heat and deep wells that tap underground water sources.

Leone also found remnants of the hidden life of enslaved people — Africans stolen from their birthplaces who secretly practiced religious and cultural beliefs in quiet basements and corners.

The history of slavery is tied to the legend of tunnels. Steinbrook has speculated about links to the Underground Railroad that helped enslave people to escape, even as she recognizes that it wasn’t really underground. In Annapolis, enslaved people often lived in the same houses as the families that held them.

Runaways fled by horse or boat, not by tunnel.

“We just walked away,” said Janice Hayes-Williams, a historian who has intensively studied the African American story of Annapolis.

Maybe those long-ago men and women left something else behind, a sense that more than bricks and mortar lie beneath the grand surface of American history.

Steinbrook, who will speak to the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Peggy Stuart Chapter in November when her self-published book comes out, said the idea of tunnels is part of the enduring charm of Annapolis.

“It’s been one of the greatest honors of my life to connect with the community and be able to tour these homes that were built during the Golden Age and to go into the attics of the little Brice House and going into the basement of the Upton Scott house where you’re standing with the owner,” she said.

She just can’t help but look at storage vaults under the Charles Carroll House, home of a Declaration of Independence signer, and wonder. She and others probably always will, no matter how much the work of researchers Leone, Hayes-Williams, Jean Russo, Glenn Campbell, Jane McWilliams and others discourage it.

“There are no tunnels at the Carroll House and/or St. Mary’s (Church),” Robert Worden, the long-time president and senior historian at Charles Carroll House, wrote in an email. “The trouble with myths is that if they get repeated enough, people believe them to be fact.”

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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