Tunnels of Ybor explored, mapped for clues of their purpose

At a construction site off East 6th Avenue in Ybor City, openings to long-forgotten tunnels were recently unearthed. Thoughts on their original purpose are, at this point, only speculation.

"Watch your heads," warned the senior construction manager for Barr & Barr, Brad Moore, as he led FOX 13's Lloyd Sowers into one of the openings. 

The brick-lined, arch-shaped tunnel stretched into the darkness, further than our eyes could see. 

We began walking.

"Back in the day, you just don't know what they had in mind for this," said Moore.

We explored a tunnel under Ybor City that some thought was an urban legend. We confirmed its existence last week. On this day, we got to see inside for ourselves.

Smaller intersecting pipes indicate drainage may have been at least a part of the tunnel's purpose, but there's little doubt it was also been used a passage.

Some believe it was used for smuggling during prohibition. In fact, the Florida Brewery, built prior to 1900, sat near the newly-discovered openings of the tunnel.

Many bottles were found during excavation.

Everything found in the tunnels could be a clue.

"We're going to go back through time and seeing how all these things connect," explained Lori Collins of USF Libraries.

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Collins and her digital heritage team are using electronic instruments to make digital maps of the tunnel in relation to streets and buildings on the surface.

"We have the whole site to about a millimeter, so if something were to happen, we have it all preserved digitally," Collins continued.

What's likely to happen is the long-lost tunnels will be covered over again when the new building goes up on the site. The owner, Daryl Shaw, said he is looking at ways to acknowledge the historical significance of the tunnels, possibly even a section of translucent floor with a view below.

In the meantime, historians scour these tunnels of local legend.  

"It's right up there with the organized crime and all the other myths and legends about Ybor," said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center.

In more than a century of Ybor City's history, the best-kept secrets may be underground. 

The USF Libraries and the Tampa Bay History Center are collecting all the data they can while the tunnel's entrance is exposed. They're planning a future exhibit.