- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - Poke around in the earth below downtown Terre Haute and you never know what you’ll find.

Late last week, McGuire Excavating & Trucking, one of the contractors working on the Indiana State University housing project now underway in the 500 block of Wabash Avenue, uncovered a deep, downtown water well - just one of many interesting finds lying just below the surface of the city.

The well, which was no longer producing water, is only about eight inches in diameter but extends down into the earth about 80 feet, estimated Dennie McGuire, who was operating heavy equipment at the site Monday afternoon.

The well was lined with a steel casing, he told the Tribune-Star (https://bit.ly/1kov9FU ).

What’s more, the mouth of the well was inside an underground room, McGuire said. The room, which he entered before it was torn down, had about a seven-foot ceiling, was about eight feet in length and 14 feet wide. It had an arched ceiling made of heavy brick.

The peak of the room’s ceiling was a few feet below the surface of the earth.

The room also contained, in addition to the mouth of the well, a large steel “bladder tank,” McGuire said. And pipes ran from the well in different directions, indicating the well supplied water to multiple downtown buildings, he said.

Subterranean Terre Haute contains lots of interesting relics from the past. Famously, the area around Ninth and Poplar streets contains a vast labyrinth of underground cellars, tunnels and - some believe - a secret underground “speakeasy” from the Prohibition Era. In other areas, steam tunnels exist from the days when a steam plant, also near Ninth and Poplar, supplied radiator steam for downtown buildings, said Chuck Ennis, city engineer.

Even the city’s combined storm and wastewater sewer system, which still exists downtown, is a relic of the distant past, dating back to the mid-to-late 1800s.

Also visible at the ISU housing project site is another frequent source of surprise for downtown excavators. Below the sidewalk on North Sixth Street you can see there is a big open area. In other words, in that area, the sidewalk is basically a bridge over nothing. There is no earth beneath the sidewalk at all for an area stretching several yards in length and about eight feet deep.

These underground “vaults” are common downtown and were once used primarily as coal rooms, Ennis said. Trucks would deliver coal by pouring it down manholes in the sidewalks into these coal rooms, he said. These days, downtown excavators have to be very careful when working, he said, because it’s never known for sure whether the sidewalk has earth below it or not.

“We find these all the time when we replace the sidewalks,” Ennis said of the vaults.

As for the well uncovered last week, it was likely situated under a long-forgotten alley that existed where once stood the Albrecht building (which most recently housed Ellis Law) and the Ford Building, which has been vacant for many years but once housed Readmore Books, Ennis said. Those buildings were constructed in the last couple of decades of the 1800s.

Wells were once a common source of water downtown. Around the end of the Civil War, entrepreneur Chauncey Rose accidentally discovered oil when he was digging a well to supply water for his tenants in the former Terre Haute House, according to an article by Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick.

Terre Haute got its first municipal water system downtown around that time, Ennis said. It is not known when the well was last used.


Information from: Tribune-Star, https://www.tribstar.com

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