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Curious Cbus: The Tragic Story Behind High Street's Hidden Tunnel

Dan Timmermann
A WOSU listener asked why this intersection in Clintonville has two sets of stairs leading underground.

This story is part of the Curious Cbusproject. You ask the questions, you vote for one of the questions and we answer.

At the intersection of Brighton and High Street in Clintonville, two covered stairwells descend into the sidewalks. Listener Rachel Shininger noticed these stairs and asked WOSU where they led - and what else was below ground.

The answer is a small bit of infrastructure built nearly 100 years ago.

Clintonville resident Blake Turner said he learned the purpose of the stairs after moving to the area.

Well, I’ve only seen the tunnel outside of the Clinton Elementary used by the students coming across High Street,” Turner says. “It was a real mystery for me for a long time, until one day I was just out around the time school let out and I saw them all going to the tunnel.”

Inside the simple tunnel, a few old yellow flood lights illuminate white concrete walls. In the past, some art classes at the elementary have used the walls for murals, but right now this canvas is blank.

“There used to be some art painted on the walls, have little shapes and geometric patterns and so forth,” says school custodian Taylor Delmetrius.

Credit Dan Timmerman
In past years the walls of the tunnel have been covered by artwork from classes at the local elementary school.

The tunnel was not built to provide an art project, though, but rather to address a public safety issue.

Historical consultant and writer Jeff Darbee says this question has come up before. In fact, back in 2015, he looked into why the tunnel was built for Columbus Monthly’s "City Quotient" column.

A child was killed by a car trying to cross the street while headed to or from the school, and the family raised funds to build the tunnel," Darbee says. "So it has been there a long time, almost a hundred years."

Local teachers and other people familiar with the tunnel have their own stories like the one Darbee heard. In some accounts, the kid does not die, or the accident takes place in a different year, sometimes a different decade.

You see how these historical stories get a life of their own and get transmitted,” Darbee says. “It’s like the game of telephone, you start with one thing and it ends up being something completely different in the end.”

Archived copies of the Columbus Dispatch, at the Columbus Metropolitan Library archives, name "John Condon" as the child in the story. According to newspaper reports at the time, John was 10 years old and attending Crestview School, which is not far from Clinton Elementary.

Credit Columbus Dispatch Archives/Columbus Metropolitan Library
An article from the May 10, 1927, evening edition of the Columbus Evening Dispatch reports that 10-year-old John Condon was hit by a streetcar on High Street.

On May 10, 1927, John attempted to cross High Street when he was hit by a passing streetcar. Except John did not die, contrary to many versions of the story. His leg, however, did have to be amputated.

While John was not the only person hit crossing High Street, his accident sparked a concerted effort to make the street safer. City Councilman Postel, with help of the community, was able to find the funds to build the tunnel under High Street.

It also seems to be the only tunnel of its type in the city - though let us know if you find another.

John Condon, who passed away in 1973, is just remembered as “a boy" in local lore, but his tunnel remains. On the way to school, kids descend into the sidewalk as they did in the 1920s when the tunnel was first constructed.

Then, they continue to school safely, High Street’s traffic thundering above. 

Got your own question about Central Ohio? Ask us below for Curious Cbus.