In 1997, my friend Jason L. and I were regular customers at a coffee shop on College Avenue in Appleton called Wired that catered to the fringe culture in Appleton. Some of the people were strange, some eccentric and some downright scary.
One man we met called himself “PsychoRat” (I believe his actual name to be Ryan Young). He told us that he had at one point, before cutting off his own tail, been a human-rat hybrid and had been part of a government project underneath the streets of Appleton. The tunnels below were heavily guarded and in one passage there was a “white dragon” that somehow had a connection to the Pope. After escaping the tunnels, the man painted a picture of the dragon and sent it to the Pope, feeling his Holiness would understand the symbolism.
PsychoRat was, and possibly is, obviously delusional. He told us the entrance of the “catacombs” (his word for the tunnels) was underneath Riverside Cemetery. While the story he told was largely the product of an insane mind, it does happen to be the case that tunnels did or do exist under Appleton.
Alongside Riverside Cemetery (by the river) is a path where nuns used to light fires and walk at night. Also along the way, there does appear to be a tunnel running under the cemetery. However, this passage is caved in and it is impossible to know what is behind the rubble without extensive digging.
The story of PsychoRat, the catacombs and Riverside Cemetery was retold by myself and Jason to our friends countless times over the following years. Those who are familiar with my fiction writing know I have worked it into my novel Breathing Together. But aside from this small piece of the puzzle, we had more or less put the issue into the back of our minds. At least until February 2008.
Jason, a security guard for Securitas, was given a new assignment at Foremost Farms on John Street, behind Lawrence University (and like Riverside Cemetery, along the Fox River). He relayed to me an interesting addition to the catacombs story.
The owner or caretaker of Foremost Farms supposedly told one of the previous security guards about the catacombs and warned her not to go venturing into them because of the risk of the ceiling collapsing. The guard who trained Jason relayed that story to him to warn of the safety risk. Jason says it “sounds pretty legit”.
Since being told about the tunnels, Jason has been looking for them off and on when he does his patrols there and he has yet to find them. However, says Jason, “I don’t really venture too far back into some of the darker areas in the basement because I don’t have a very strong flashlight and once you get back there it’s pitch black. It’s creepy enough that I don’t really want to venture down there alone, either. I’m trying to stop being afraid, but it’s pretty creepy and like I said I don’t really have a strong enough flashlight for an expedition like that. I have an idea where they might be, but I think they might also be sealed off like the other ‘supposed’ entrances.”
So now another piece of the mystery has been added.
200 Block of College Avenue
On February 28, 2008, I consulted with a reference librarian from the Appleton Public Library regarding the two previously known tunnels (Foremost Farms and Riverside Cemetery). This librarian informed me of an article “that appeared in the Post-Crescent on May 17, 1977, page D-1, ‘Tunnel Still a Mystery.'” I present to you that article, by Mike Hinant, in its entirety:
A question for local historians: Was there ever a bank, or perhaps a jail, in the 200 block of E. College Avenue? On the north side of the street and in the middle of the block? If so, that might be one explanation for a small, mysterious tunnel found recently at the demolition site of a 107-year old  building at 217 E. College Ave., a structure situated on the south side of the street.
Workers found the approximately 3-foot-by-3-foot opening in the wall of the basement at the front of the building about a week ago. The discovery not only raised their curiosity, but also the interest of the president of the Outagamie County Historical Society and City Engineer Tom Harp.
Harp, who took a look at the tunnel last week, came away as uncertain of the narrow crawlway’s origin and purpose as before he viewed the opening. Earlier he had offered the “hunch” that the tunnel may have resulted from a “failure” of some kind, perhaps a washout, because no timber shoring was found in it.
The tunnel, about five feet below ground level, extended about 20 feet beneath the sidewalk, then seemed to angle downward, in a north to northeasternly direction, below College Avenue.
It was difficult to tell where (if anywhere) it went at that point, however, because the clay-sided crawlway was almost completely filled with dirt. Harp said it’s possible the tunnel had been dug by someone, though he couldn’t guess when or why. “It could be almost anything,” he said, adding that the fill found in the tunnel may have been the result of reconstruction work on College Avenue 10 years ago . Sanitary sewers also were put in at that time, Harp noted. “I don’t know if it has any historical significance,” the city engineer said.
Neither does Carolyn Kellogg, president of the county historical society, or local historian Lillian Mackesy. Kellogg said “a lot of weird suggestions” were advanced after the tunnel was discovered to explain its existence. Those suggestions included the theory that it may have been a remnant from “underground railroad” days, when slaves who escaped to the North were often hidden by sympathizers. Mackesy ruled out that likelihood, however. “Not in Appleton,” she said. “In Milwaukee, maybe. But we voted against Lincoln here 5-1. In fact, this county was in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act.”
As with Kellogg, Mackesy said she has “no idea” why the tunnel was dug, if indeed it were dug by someone. She wondered if perhaps the narrow tunnel had been dug for use as a fire-control cistern or as a sewer. Mackesy said she knew of no bank or lockup ever being located across College Avenue in that block.
Whatever its origin or purpose, the tunnel found in the basement of the razed building is being closed. Harp said Monday it would be filled for reasons of safety. “I’m surprised it wasn’t discovered when the street was reconstructed.”
There is no way to be sure if this third tunnel is in any way connected to the other two, but the 200 East block is not very far from the other two tunnels. So, however unlikely, it may be true that they are linked. The librarian continues:
The references to Foremost Foods and Riverside Cemetery could refer to walking trails that run along the Fox River from the site of the old Foremost Dairy plant, beneath the College Avenue Bridge, and below Riverside Cemetery. I have never seen or heard any evidence of tunnels at these locations.
I am not in any way making reference to the walking trails. We are talking about subterranean passageways, not trails.
August 3, 2009: More on Riverside and a New Entrance
I was contacted by a woman on July 31 who informed me that a friend of hers (identified as “Zach”) “had run into some people one night in Riverside Cemetery. They were looking for an entrance to the sewer underneath. They wanted to map it out… and I had mentioned that to someone who has also heard of the catacombs. He thinks that would be how you would enter them..” Going in through the sewer had never occurred to me. Contacting the Appleton authorities on sewage tunnels might be a good idea.
Three days later she reported to me that another friend (identified as “Tyler”) “began to tell me about the last known entrance to the catacombs. Apparently his father would go play with a neighbor boy who’s basement had the last known entrance. They would go play in the catacombs sometimes… The current owners of the home now have since sealed the entrance shut with a cement wall. The current owners are apparently the once young boy that Tyler’s father played with. I guess the tunnels run all all over the city of Appleton. They were not structured extremely well by any means, though. And I guess there are a few that interconnect with Kaukauna…”
It goes without saying that it is crucial to find out which basement these old tunnels are in.
September 2, 2009: More on Foremost Farms
I received an e-mail from someone I will identify only as “Chris”. He has picked up the adventuring where I had left off. Chris reports that he and his “friend Adam have been touring the Foremost Farms plant site on John Street the entire summer almost every night with either Jason or the other guard Rick. Being that we are not easily afraid and are somewhat thrill seekers, they allowed us to go through the building on security runs during the night finding and locking any entrances that possible trespassers and vandals may have found. In our searches one night with Rick, we went all the way up the stairs to the 3rd floor of the building and down to the basement where I felt strangely drawn to one particular area that didn’t quite click with the construction of the building. Unfortunately, before we could investigate further, Rick decided to move on to the next area. But in a stroke of luck a few nights later we met up with Jason on his security run. He decided to let us in with him because we had told him of our previous enterprises within the building and he had previously mentioned you and your studies upon the subject. Being a history buff and major, I decided to snoop around inside the basement, and this is what I discovered: the brickwork in the basement and the arches created style goes back to early 1800s Appleton and they match almost exactly with the arches found in the basement at the pavilion in Appleton’s Peirce Park, as well as the tunnel between Appleton West High School and Wilson Middle School. The hallway and room struck me as odd; why would such brickwork be in such an obviously much younger building? On the right of the door out of said hallway there is what appears to be a large water tank or cistern. The problem I find, from what my drafting, publishing and construction classes have all told me, where this is, there shouldn’t be fast running water. In that same room we moved on to look further back into a room that was labeled “High Voltage keep out”. Now, a generator of the size needed to power Foremost and its property is by no means big enough to warrant a room that is as big as what this room appears to be. Unfortunately, due to the standing water and the hum of open electronics we decided that it was too dangerous to venture into said room and we headed elsewhere in the vicinity.”
I eagerly await any updates on this ongoing exploration.
Sept 3, 2009: The Avenue Mall? Victoria’s?
After reading the last update, my friend Nate contacted me and offered the following information: “I discovered underground hallways while working at Jim Laabs in the Avenue Mall. They’re accessible from the basement. I don’t recall if they were under lock and key at all. I haven’t traversed them myself, but I’ve heard they extend down the avenue pretty far.”
Nate also says he “heard that when Victoria’s was shut down for cockroaches a couple years back, it was because Hunan down the road imported them in and they traveled down the tunnels.” I don’t personally believe in the Hunan/roach theory, and Chris says that the closure was due to the ceiling collapsing in the back portion of the kitchen. I find that much more likely… the Hunan story is more than likely an anti-Chinese jab.
September 7, 2009: Riverside, Avenue, Foremost, Roaches
My accomplice (Tina) and I explored the known places where tunnels are alleged to exist. Sadly, there is not much to report. The hole that was once at Riverside Cemetery is now filled in, meaning that any answer about that place will likely never come. We went to the Avenue Mall (it was closed but we found an unlocked door), but couldn’t get in the basement, as the elevators wouldn’t let us… one of them was even broken, trapping us in the dark! Last, we went to Foremost Farms around 4:00 and toured the grounds, but did not go inside the building. Although a very cool building, we found nothing.
However, later the same day (9:00), Chris returned to Foremost and sent me the following report:
“We literally just got back from a trip through Foremost and I found some really interesting things! For one, we both might be wrong about the Victoria’s roach theory! Whilst walking through the basement this evening I looked down and to my absolute heart-stopping horror I was standing on a long since dead cockroach! This sucker measured roughly 3 inches long by almost 1.5 wide, and it’s clear that they never get this big in Wisconsin by themselves. Since reading up on the story of the tunnel found under College Ave, and due to the fact that Foremost is only about a mile or so away from both Hunan One and Victoria’s restaurant, it is entirely plausible that tunnels do exist between all of the buildings on the avenue! Upon further investigation and research, I have found that a cockroach this size can run in short bursts roughly 15 feet at a time, resting up to 10 minutes at a time, only to continue again. This would make this roach to have spent almost a day trying to get to Foremost on a direct line, assuming there were no buildings in its way and it ran and stopped consecutively every 15 feet and rested the full 10 minutes whilst not being seen by predator or human boot. The likelihood of this, however, is quite impossible due to so many buildings in its way. The only other answer I can think of, besides the most obvious, is that it used the septic channels to get there. One problem: Foremost is not on any city line at any junction. Its drain pipe empties into the river roughly 5 feet away from the city’s line, and the possibility of the roach entering and then finding its way through the maze of pipes and floor drains of Foremost is unlikely.”
The mystery deepens and there is no conclusion as of yet… I have also consulted Tom Richards at the Post-Crescent to see what he can find (Tom answers random questions sent in by local readers). I don’t expect much, but it would give the tunnels a public airing and that may trigger someone’s memories.
I will post more when I receive any update.