TAMPA, Fla. - The tunnels under Ybor City have been talked about for decades. Some thought they were an urban legend, but there's more evidence that there actually is a network of underground tunnels built decades ago.
"The tunnels of Ybor City represent one of the great riddles and mysteries," offered Dr. Gary Mormino, professor emeritus of history at USF.
He was in Ybor City Wednesday as architect Gerry Curts showed pictures and offered descriptions of one of the tunnels near the Old Florida Brewery near East 6th Ave. and Noccio Parkway.
"Clearly we have tunnels. There's no question about it. We've broken through and we've seen them," insisted Curts, who says a new opening to the tunnels was revealed by recent demolition by developers Daryl Shaw and Joe Capitano, who plan an office building on the site.
Through a spokesperson, Shaw confirmed to FOX 13 news that the tunnels exist and attempts will be made to preserve them, possibly even constructing a glass floor in the new building so that the tunnels beneath can be seen.
Photographer Corey Clark and I were shown a basement under a nearby century-old building where patterns in the brick walls appear to show where tunnels were closed years ago. Curts showed us an old city map that he says shows the tunnel running from Ybor City toward Port Tampa Bay.
Questions remain about who constructed the tunnels and why. Curts and Mormino say the job would have been so large that city leaders must have been involved. Curts says the tunnels are too large -- up to 7 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide -- and the floors too flat to have been for sewage.
Some have speculated that the tunnels were used by the Mafia or by bootleggers during prohibition.
However, Mormino and Curts believe public corruption in Tampa in the early to mid-1900s would have allowed organized crime to operate without the need of an elaborate tunnel system.
Mormino also doubts it was for transportation of booze during prohibition.
"Everyone was selling bootleg whiskey in Tampa at that point. Why would you need to go to the expense of building a tunnel? It makes no sense," he pointed out.
Mormino speculates it could have been used for trafficking Chinese prostitutes from Cuba to the Port of Tampa and into Ybor City in the early 1900s. However, he says we may never find the evidence needed to say for sure.
"I'm not sure how important it is to preserve the tunnels," Curts added, "but I think it's important to recognize they existed."