The urban underground: secrets under today’s modern cities

Many cities have rich histories that date back millennia, and the source of that history lies right below the structures and streets that make their modern versions.

Modern cities have rich histories that can date back millennia, and the source of that history lies right beneath the structures and streets that make their current versions. Abandoned subway tunnels, secret compartments, and even whole rivers run underneath the worlds sprawling metropolises, and when unearthed reveal secrets to the past that have been long forgotten.

Seedy members of society have long used subterranean realms to their advantage, while others used them as shelters while enemy armies laid siege. Many have been forgotten over time only to be rediscovered, and each tells a story of the city that resides on top.

Paris, France

Paris is another city that was founded by the Romans, and to build the city up, Parisians used limestone beneath the surface as a quarry for centuries. This resulted in miles of cave networks that eventually became a problem, as the weight of the city began to put massive pressure on these tunnels.

The City of Light had another problem on its hands too: cemeteries within the walls of the city were full, and the practice of cremations had been banned with the advent of Christianity. Bodies were being piled into pits and overflowing into the basements of buildings.

This is when city planners decided to kill two birds with one bone. While the quarry tunnels were being reinforced, someone came up with the idea of putting the city’s dead in the available space. For the next 80 years, officials came out at night to dig up remains and stacked piles of bones beneath the city. As of today, remains of 6,000,000 people are interred under the city with a population 1/3 that number.

What resulted is known as the Catacombs, and at its entrance, an appropriate sign reads: “Stop, this is the empire of death.” The piles are a hundred feet deep and as tall as a person. The exteriors of the piles are much neater, as they only feature human femurs, tibias, and skulls. Of course, they constantly need to be re-stacked because they aren’t held together with anything (like skin).

Portland, Oregon

Portland is a relatively young city, but it is included on our list because its underground was notorious. Today when people think of Portland, they don’t think of Shanghai, China, but around the end of the 19th century, the common link between the two cities circled around the lucrative opium trade.

In the 1870s opium was booming at epidemic levels in China, and Shanghai, its largest city, was a hub for any sea captain willing to stop by and ferry the profitable cargo to other parts of the world. The only problem for American West Coast captains was that it was difficult to find able-bodied sailors to agree to the journey.

To fill their ranks, sea captains teamed up with saloon owners and bartenders to pull off a despicable practice known as getting “Shanghaied.” Imagine you’re a little tipsy and you’re looking for a drink at a bar. You walk in, and all of the sudden, a trap door beneath your feet opens up and you’re locked in a prison cell beneath the city.

Saloon owners and bartenders received up to $50 for often drugging, and then capturing able-bodied men. They were housed in the tunnels beneath the city (which were built for this purpose) and would wake up while out to sea and given the choice of slavery or being pitched over the side of the deck. Today, underneath a quiet restaurant in the city, the opening to the Shanghai tunnels still exists.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is one of the rarest cities in the world, in that it is the only city that spans two continents, was the capital of multiple empires, and the structures and artwork of previous empires were not burned and destroyed upon the occupation of new inhabitants.

The Basilica Cistern is the prime example of those structures that live on. When the Romans took the city over 2,000 years ago they built the same ingenious aqueduct system that brought water to Rome, to the great city they named Constantinople. All of that water had to be stored, especially in times of siege, and the Basilica Cistern met that need.

The Basilica Cistern is over 100,000 square feet, which is well over two acres. In 1453 the Ottomans took over the city and made it their new capital. They didn’t use the Cistern, however, a visiting Frenchman became suspicious when residents of the city seemed to always have fresh water and fresh fish.

In 1544 Pierre Giles rediscovered the Cistern after fishing in the basement of a home. Today the city still sits on top of the 336 marble pillars, and visitors can tour the underground palace. It’s a place where the ancient world meets the new, as government buildings, restaurants, homes, and even roads comfortably sit on top of the marvelous structure.

Rome, Italy

Rome is one of the oldest cities in the world and the ancient capital of the Roman empire. Given its thousands of years of history, the city holds far more than most beneath the structures of its modern version. And in this instance, there’s an entire stadium that sits beneath a large city square.

In 86 AD, the Stadium of Domitian was completed for the Emperor of the same name. Domitian learned from previous emperors that keeping the Roman masses fed with bread and having their blood lust fulfilled through violent entertainment was essential to maintaining order in the Eternal City.

Rome would fall almost 400 years later, and for over a thousand years its majestic structures were unkempt, looted, and ultimately buried. In fact, the great Coliseum was unrecognizable by the 15th century as it was buried beneath earth, human waste, and vegetation.

In the 16th century, the foundation of the Piazza Navona was built on top of the massive 200,000 square foot Stadium of Domatian. Today the stadium that could hold 30,000 people still stands, though it is off limits to the public, and underneath the Neptune Fountain and several apartment buildings. In fact, the square and surrounding buildings still maintain the exact shape of the stadium.

New York, United States

New York City is a sprawling metropolis with a history as rich as any city in the United States. Part of that history includes a piece of transportation residents of the city travel on everyday. London claims to have opened the world’s first subway (the Tube) in 1863, but New York built a tunnel years before that.

In 1844 workers broke ground in Brooklyn to create what became the Atlantic Tunnel. The ½ mile long tunnel was built so strong that it supports the street and passing cars above it to this day. But it’s no longer in service, and legends abound about its storied past.

In the mid-19th century, corruption was rampant in New York City. In 1859, the year it was closed, public funds were raised to blow up the tunnel. Instead, the head of the project pocketed $130,000 and simply filled each end of the tunnel with earth.

After that, a savvy liquor store owner is known to have distilled whiskey in the tunnel. There’s even a legend that the lost 18 pages of John Wilkes Booth diary is in a locomotive that may be still trapped inside the Atlantic Tunnel. To this day, Atlantic Avenue runs directly over the Atlantic Tunnel and the mystery of the diary remains unsolved.

London, England

England’s capital has been around since the time of the Romans, and like just about all major cities in the world, London has a major river that divides its territory. For all that time, the river Thames was largely used a depository for human waste.

Londoners compounded the problem by covering all of its tributaries to hide the waste that was piling up in the river. Using these tributaries as sewers resulted in rubbish being washed into the Thames. The advent of flushing toilets made this even worse, and resulted in not only cholera outbreaks, but what became known as the Great Stink of 1858.

Several cholera outbreaks in the first half of the 19-century resulted in thousands of deaths, and while the deadly disease was most certainly caused by human excrement mixing with the cities water supply, parliament only acted after the stink from the waste became practically unbearable.

In 1859 a project that spanned over two decades broke ground, as 1,300 miles of tunnels were built to divert the waste to treatment plants instead of the mighty river. The tributaries of the Thames were also reinforced as massive tunnels beneath the cities buildings and streets were constructed to support their runoff.

Budapest, Hungary

Buda and Pest are bisected by the Danube River, but in 1873 they decided to combine into one city we know now as Budapest. The Hungarian capital sits atop a network of natural cave systems that require constant attention in order to keep the city from sinking.

Houses have been known to crack as the natural cave pillars slowly erode, causing the ground to shift (the shifting even swallowed a grazing goat once). While Budapestians have been reinforcing the caves with salvos of pillars of the years, the caves also provided an exceptional defense against dozens of sieges.

In late 1944, the Soviet army encircled the city and laid siege for two months. Axis troops used Budapestians as guides to ferry supplies through the caves, and even built a headquarters and hospital. The battle was so fierce, and the destruction was so severe that roughly 80% of the city above the surface was destroyed.

Today the tunnels have been sealed, but they still require constant attention from engineers. Mathias Church, which is one of the cities most iconic buildings, wouldn’t be able to stand today if weren’t for their efforts.

Washington DC

Washington DC is decidedly one of the more beautiful capitals in the world, but there’s nothing pretty about the fact that it was built on a swamp. Open sewers have been such a problem over the years that they contributed to the deaths of both President William Henry Harrison and President Zachary Taylor.

The problem was finally addressed in 1871 when a massive construction project created tunnels beneath the city and diverted built up waste away from the capital. They run through the heart of the city giving access to the most important government buildings in the country.

The 1,000 miles of tunnels beneath the city are under constant surveillance from the FBI, DC police, the Secret Service, and Homeland Security. The tunnels are further protected using motion sensing lasers. One tunnel is well placed in that it links the Capitol building, the White House, and FBI headquarters.

The tunnels have, however, been used by the government in times of peril. A bunker beneath the White House is meant to serve as a command center for the President if the country were under attack. In fact, then Vice President Dick Cheney coordinated response efforts from the bunker on 9/11.

Dublin, Ireland

The capital of Ireland is another city that was built on the banks of a river, but unlike other cities. Dublin’s river has been completely moved underground. The Liffey River still functions as the source for Dublin’s drinking water and was used as a launching point for countless raids conducted by the Vikings.

Vikings were notoriously violent and plundered all of Ireland using the rivers that snaked through the land. When they were ousted by the Normans after several centuries of occupation, the original river from was diverted, then built over to make way for the expanding city.

The river was a tidal river and was notorious for flooding. To this day, the running water swells when heavy rains soak the city. Viking homes were often victims of rising water levels as they settled on the banks of the Liffey River.

The Norse, followed by the Vikings, and then the Normans after them all, fought furiously for control of Ireland, and any town that banked on a river was raided. Local inhabitants could count on getting their possessions looted, and maybe even forced into slavery. Perhaps this explains why the Irish would go through so much trouble to erase the river with their capital city.

Chicago, United States

The story of Chicago’s vast tunnel system is also the story of the city’s most notorious gangster. Al Capone rose to the top of the criminal hierarchy in Chicago in the 1920s and early 1930s, and amassed a fortune keeping the throats of thirsty drinkers lubricated with booze during Prohibition.

Prohibition did little to curb vice around the country, but it did succeed in moving liquor consumption underground. Speakeasys in Chicago’s South Side saw gangsters, prostitutes, and even the politicians that ran the city, while under constant threat of raids by law enforcement.

Even though Al Capone knew he was being targeted in a federal investigation, he didn’t slow his liquor distribution down one iota. After all, he spent years building a network of tunnels that allowed his operation to function in complete secrecy.

Al Capone was arrested in 1931 and after being found guilty, he spent the rest of his life in jail. Its interesting that despite his bravado in keeping his operation going while under investigation from the nation’s most notorious G man (Elliot Ness), Capone didn’t get in any trouble because of racketeering. He was convicted on charges of tax evasion, which is testament to how effective it was to move his operation underground.

Naples, Italy

Naples is a city that is very lucky to not have its modern version entirely underground. In 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted it was only a gust of wind that saved Naples the fate suffered by Pompeii. The powerful wind diverted the pyroclastic flow from the volcano and wiped Pompeii from the map, and Naples lived to fight another day.

But Naples’ day did finally arrive a few hundred years later when a giant mudslide wiped out the entire city, and left it buried beneath at least 30 feet of earth. Seven hundred years later, a new city was born on the new ground, and the civilization beneath the surface was lost to history.

Naples and Pompeii indeed share a common history, and just like Pompeii, Naples’s ruins are nearly perfectly preserved. The theater where Emperor Nero gave a performance that moved the gods and the earth still survives (an earthquake occurred while he was on stage, and he made the audience stay as he proclaimed his performance was so moving the gods shook the earth).

The city was largely lost for centuries, and it wasn’t until WWII that Napolitanos were forced to burrow underground to survive massive bombing raids conducted by the Allies.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is another city where the old version of itself is supporting the modern city that sits on top. Like many cities that reside behind massive defensive walls, Edinburgh was running out of space hundreds of years ago, and some of poorest people in the city made their homes underground.

By the 17th century, living beneath the ground in Edinburgh was a virtual death sentence. Human waste and rubbish were literally thrown from peoples’ homes causing it wash up in the streets of the subterranean sections of the city.

Because of the filth disease was rampant, and plague outbreaks were commonplace down below. It still wasn’t known what caused the deadly disease, so no efforts were made to clean it up. Later on in the 17th century, the city had a major makeover that covered up the city below.

In order to expand, the city filled in its hilly territory with dirt, and built the modern city right on top. Today the city of the poor still exists beneath Mary King’s Close, and holds up the buildings that were built there. They’ve been reinforced over the years to keep them up, and can still be accessed by urban explorers.

Seattle, Washington

Seattle is a city that got a fresh start because a massive fire that wiped out over 30 city blocks in 1889. Prior to the fire, the city was largely made of wood, and tides from Elliot Bay constantly flooded the city’s Pioneer Square.

Seattle was a logging town, and large pieces of timber skidded down Yesler Avenue, giving the road the name Skid Row. And just to the South of Skid Row, Pioneer Square was the focal point for gambling, prostitution, and drinking.

The great Seattle fire gave planners the opportunity to remake the city. They built a large retaining wall that prevented Pioneer Square from getting flooded, ensuring that the only drowning happening there would come from reaching the bottom of a bottle.

The city streets were also built up 12 feet higher and reinforced on both sides. In fact, for a period of time patrons were forced to climb ladders to reach the bars and shops at sidewalk level, often resulting in injuries and deaths. Today people can tour the underground city that holds up the large skyscraper above.

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague’s tunnel system was something the Germans seized upon when they invaded the country before WWII even began. Czechoslovakia was one of Germany’s first victims in their quest to expand, and they set up shop underground.

Munitions factories churned out some of Germany’s greatest weapons, including their devastating Panzers. To build these hulks of metal, they used slaves, and the factories in Prague were entirely run by slaves and their SS overwatchers.

Reports say that the slaves in these factories, as in many slave run factories fueling the German war machine, engaged in acts of sabotage that rendered many of the weapons useless. The cost many of them their lives, and probably saved countless Allied soldiers.

Today the mines are still there, but if you’re interested in visiting them you better hurry. The network is a honeycomb under the city and is already in the process of collapsing. Engineers estimate that within the next 20 years, those factories will be erased forever from history.

Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev is another city where slave labor built the tunnels under the city. This time they were political prisoners under the murderous regime of Josef Stalin. A few years after Stalin took over in 1924 he embarked on a huge campaign to reorganize the nation’s farming system, and bolster the vast country’s infrastructure.

Tensions in Europe were at a constant boil between the years of WWI and WWII, and this caused Stalin to order the city of Kiev to be reinforced in anticipation of an attack from the West.

Military planners used the basic structure of existing fortifications, and updated the defenses that were built back when Mongol hoards were raiding Eastern Europe. Hundreds of machine gun nests and pillboxes were connected by a honeycomb of tunnels.

When the Germans came in August of 1941 they inflicted incredible casualties upon the Soviet army, and captured over ½ a million troops. As poor as the defenses held up, the battle managed to save the Soviet Union, as the Germans attacked Kiev instead of Moscow, which would’ve had a devastating effect on the country.