Jacksonville Turns 200: A ‘top to bottom’ look at downtown’s historical tunnels

We spend a lot of time talking about Jacksonville’s future, but many of us don’t fully appreciate the depth of its past.

The rich history of our city underground, with tunnels!

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It’s a fascinating story about who built them, why and what happened to them.

Whoever said history is boring never met Gary Sass. He leads the “Top to Bottom” tour of downtown Jacksonville that starts with an eye to the skyline.

“In 1974, when it was built, it was the tallest building in Florida. It was the Independent Life building then,” Sass said of the building that currently bears Wells Fargo’s name.

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Sass shared with a tour group from Nocatee that former Independent Life employees shared a secret with him about the construction of the building. It’s become a Jacksonville legend.

“They sunk down the footers here for the foundation, they hit something underground. Then they started digging to see what they hit and it turns out there was an underground locomotive here,” Sass said.

And it turns out, that’s not the only secret buried in Jacksonville.

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“Think about it. Three largest banks in all of Florida, they put their headquarters buildings next to each other in Jacksonville. Why would they do that? Well, because of the underground,” Sass said.

A quick walk down Bay Street to Hogan Street and Sass’ tour gets to the bottom of the story.

“We’ll have underground vaults and not tell anybody so we won’t be robbed,” Sass said.

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The tunnel part of the tour really gets started in what looks like a hallway, but it’s actually under West Forsyth Street and another going under Hogan Street.

Sass takes the group into one of the vaults in what used to be the Atlantic National Bank. Built in 1909 as part of a network of an underground money transfer system to avoid bank robbers.

Eventually, the banks developed better vaults above ground, but in 1962, the underground web of tunnels served another purpose that Sass said he uncovered a few years ago when he was cleaning up the tunnels for tours.

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During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the vaults and tunnels connecting them served as bomb shelters.

Back above ground, Sass points out one more way the tunnels made Jacksonville unique. In the 1950s, Americans learned to demand drive-thru service for food and banks.

The tunnels were used to accommodate drive-thru banking.

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“Going into the buildings, and going into the vault and through the tunnels I did not know existed,” Amy Amann said.

For the group from Nocatee, it’s a deeper appreciation of their community.

“They say ‘oh, it’s Jacksonville and it’s where I fly to get to the beaches,’ but there’s so much rich in history. There’s a lot going on here,” Kim Cornwell said.

A promising future above ground and a rich history beneath it. To learn how you can take the “Top to Bottom” tour, click here.

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Photos: Jacksonville’s underground tunnels