Discover the long and storied history of the Capitol Square tunnel

Posted at 12:51 AM, Jun 08, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. -- One of the very coolest underground Richmond stories is also likely the most off-limits.

But for 65 years, the vast Capitol Square/Medical College of Virginia tunnels were open to the public.

Nurses, politicians, state workers, patients, and even the dead would share the labyrinthine network of steam tunnels that connected key state buildings downtown.

"It kind of reminded me of an old horror movie in a way," recalled Dwayne Altice, who walked the tunnels as a courier some 20 years ago. "There's like these lights along the sides of it and the ceiling and they were flickering. And it was water dripping. I thought it was neat to walk through there, but it had that feel to it."

The first ones were dug around 1913, but most were steam tunnels built in between 1937 and 1940 so all the buildings could share a common power plant for heating. A few other tunnels were added later, presumably for emergency access.

The network connects the State Capitol, the Governor's Mansion, the old state assembly building, state library and Department of Transportation and a lengthy list of old VCU Medical Center (MCV) buildings, including West, North and Main hospitals, Sanger Hall, Nelson Clinic, among several others.

Reportedly, the homeless and even a well-known prostitute would frequent the tunnels along with state workers or politicians heading to lunch at the hospital's Skull and Bones restaurant or cafeteria.

Some used the tunnels to avoid bad weather. One woman said the tunnels were easier on her high heels than Capitol Square's paving bricks.

A former MCV patient recalled doing his physical therapy in the tunnels.

"You never knew who was going to be in the tunnel," recalled Regina Reams of Powhatan. "It was like a little city underground."

She was among the pharmacy school students who prowled the tunnels, delivering medicines to MCV's many different clinics and wards.

They had to use the tunnels for delivery, she said. If you were claustrophobic, "you had to get over it."

During her time there (starting in 1983), Reams said the morgue was in Sanger Hall and sometimes there would be sheet-covered bodies on gurneys in the tunnel by the building's subterranean entrance.

"Dark, and it's dreary and it's just like something you would see in a horror movie," Reams said. "And here you are looking kind of like Red Riding Hood."

Occasionally, she said, a student would pay another student to make a delivery to avoid that experience.

But, Reams said, she never had any trouble at all in the tunnels.

September 11, 2001, changed everything in the US, including access to the tunnels. The subsequent renovation to Capitol Square closed the door for good, except for essential personnel.

What was once a somewhat spooky underground sensation is slowly becoming almost a secret, fading in RVA's rear view mirror.

So please share your memories of the tunnels on our Facebook page with this story, before they are lost to time and the darkness below RVA. Watch our video report to see what the network looked like and which buildings it connected.



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