Underground Tunnels and Aqueducts: Downtown Raleigh’s Lost Waterway
Every Raleigh urbanite has sipped brews at the Raleigh Beer Garden and sucked down cheesy pizza beneath the rainbow portobellos at Mellow Mushroom. If you were hanging out there last week, I snuck right under your feet, crawling beneath the forgotten tunnels and hidden cobblestone waterway that flows beneath West and Peace Streets in downtown Raleigh.
You can find all kinds of mysterious things beneath the city streets.
The downtown Raleigh aqueduct is a remnant from, experts estimate, sometime in the early 1900’s, when the city funneled water from the Pigeon House Branch. You can thank Laura White’s article in Raleigh Public Record and Scott Huler’s fantastic book “On the Grid: A plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that make our World Work” for the historic research — not me. I’m just exploring it and taking photos for ya’ll. Anyways, these tunnels were probably built before my grandmother was born. They’re old and historic–my favorite!
From Peace Street to Wade Avenue and Beyond
Spying the entrance is tricky, as the stone waterway flows between old buildings, disappears beneath roads, peeks out again behind an old field behind a mill, then tumbles between the trees as the Pigeon House Branch. My best friend Amber and I chased the creek all the way down West Street, hitting a dead end at the traffic of Wade Avenue, but watching the natural river flow on out to Cameron Village. We turned around, never having spied the cobblestone portion or underground tunnel, unsure where to try next. Since the road is actually at least 15 feet above the creek, we climbed down to water level to see if any hidden entrances were carved into the side of the hill.
The Hidden Stone Grotto
That’s where we found our first hint of the aqueduct: A large, long pipe cut a long passage through the hill, running beneath West Street. Strange totems marked the entrance–an old, black vacuum cleaner; a single, brown flip-flop; a beer bottle. Graffiti scrawled the inside of the tunnel with messages inciting violence. We turned on our flashlights and hugged the ribbed round walls. The water only came up partway, so by carefully toe-ing the edges, we could avoid getting our feet wet.
Stalactites and stalagmites decorated the inside of this urban cave. Streaming on Facebook Live, my audience asked me to touch the crusty stalactite. I nudged it with my foot.
Was this pipe going to lead to the aqueduct? Or was this just a sewer pipe? As we drew closer to the light at the end, I could see stonework creating a secret grotto just ahead. I rushed out. After an hour of searching, we’d found something!
The only entrance to this magical little grotto is through the long, dark sewer pipe hidden in a little corner down in the creek. It’d be easy to miss.
The graffiti here was far more intricate, artful, and beautiful. At some point, someone had created murals here. We also found strange symbols, animal footprints, and more pipes. A grassy peninsula creates a pretty resting spot. Ivy or kudzu and branches hang over the pipe’s entrance. It’s like a secret garden.
The only way out was back through the pipe. We climbed through, and hopped around on the rocks in the beautiful Pigeon House Branch creek. Like children, we played in the creek and followed it back up West Street, enjoying the perfect weather.
The Underground Tunnel
The coolest part of the lost aqueduct is undeniably the underground portion that flows beneath the streets. It’s very easy to miss the entrance because it’s hidden between buildings. Once you spy the entrance, it’s somewhat difficult to get down there. The stone walls are at least 10-15 feet tall, so jumping or climbing down isn’t advised. My friends Angela, Theron, and I followed the edges until it reaches a small waterfall where the man-made portion ends for a while, and the creek flows into the woods. We carefully slid down a steep, overgrown hillside and helped each other jump over to the tunnel’s entrance.
I don’t have precise measurements, but the aqueduct tunnel seems to be several hundred feet long. We were walking slowly and carefully, and it took us about twenty minutes to get through it.
Warning: You WILL get your feet wet. There’s no way around it.
At first, the tunnel has stone ledges that hold you out of the water. We put our backs to the cobblestone walls and side-stepped along the thin ledge, flashlights on. But the ledge gets thinner, then abruptly ends at a pillar. We shone our lights into the water to see how deep it was. It looked pretty clean, and only about ankle-deep. It’s cold, and the ground beneath is very slippery!
The tunnel is a little spooky. The thud-thump of passing cars adds to the creepy-factor. A few spiders, cobwebs, and manhole covers keep the landscape interesting. In a few spots, the ceiling looks a little caved in. At one point we heard a train rumbling in the distance and had a moment of panic — do the train tracks run over the tunnel? No. They don’t.
As we moved forward, the ceiling actually gets lower until taller members of our exploration party had to duck. Graffiti decorates the rough walls. It reminded me a lot of my times crawling through caves in the mountains — dark, moist, chilly, with spiders.
The Cobblestone Aqueduct
When we emerged, we’d finally gotten to the aqueduct proper: A long stretch of smooth concrete floors and tall gravely walls. I looked up and could barely see the tops of buildings. Our friend Angela was up there. She waved.
More graffiti marks the entrance to this urban spelunking system. The water flow is mild, and there’s plenty of dry space to walk. With stoney walls with crawling green vines creating long passageways, it feels like playing in a castle moat.
We ran through to aqueduct, filming and getting photos beneath the blue sky. We heard the sound of traffic as we walked closer to Peace Street, where the aqueduct flows underground again. However, this time the tunnel was full of brown water and smelled of sewage. I peered in, spying pipes, garbage, and a ladder inside. The system seems to branch out several directions beneath the street. I’ve heard stories about a Pagan Shrine–or perhaps a secret society’s shrine–underneath Raleigh. Was it in there?
We’ll have to go back when we have better street-spelunking gear, like rubber boots and headlamps.
Edna Metz Wells Park Aqueduct
We finished our exploration by going to a very small nearby park, which has another stone waterway. It’s smaller, but very beautiful, with thick green kudzu crawling down its carved stone. According to Goodnight Raleigh!, there was once a hidden mural here. We searched for it, but found only some very colorful graffiti. The artwork was very vibrant and seemed to be heavily focused on mushrooms. I crawled through a tunnel, but found nothing of interest. Angela found quite a bit of quartz crystals, adding to the magical, mystical aura of Edna Metz Wells Park. It’s possible the hidden mural has been covered up by the newer artwork.