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Central City underground

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My life at elevation 9,640 in Gilpin County

By Brian Gibbins

When I went to Clark School in Central City, we had a huge gymnasium across the street in front of the school. This is not a story about that gymnasium. Outside the gymnasium on the uphill side was a huge gulch, or ravine depending on where you are from. In this gulch two creeks converged after they exited from large pipes. Both pipes, or culverts as my dad called them, were about six feet in diameter and the water dropped about four feet to the ground where they joined and continued on to Mountain City and then Black Hawk.

When looking uphill at the two, the rightmost culvert was made of corrugated steel and had a good amount of water pouring out of it. As it turned out, this same creek ran in front of the Sauer House where our family lived then and started further up the hill toward the cemeteries and the Boodle Mine. I did try to float a toy boat down the culvert in front of our house and look for it to come out by the school. My dad said it was possible, but not probable that I would find it. I did not.

The leftmost culvert was also round, but constructed from the kind of concrete pipe that fits together. The water coming from this pipe was barely a trickle in comparison to the other.

Now, in the winter time, the water in both of these giant pipes froze to varying degrees. The steel one, with the most water, eventually froze up almost completely and left only a small gap at the top.

The left side, with less water volume, backed up inside of the pipe and froze into a very long pool of ice. You might have guessed that some of the more adventurous kids would climb up the rocks, over the ice and snow and into the big pipe to “ice skate” in our regular boots or shoes. I was one of the kids inviting all the others to join me after school.

Sometimes I could only get my little sister to go along. Mostly, though it was at least Alexis and I. He was my best friend then and we would run from as far back in the pipe as the ice went, then skid on down to the end before the drop off. Hopefully missing any embedded rocks along the way which would certainly make you stop quickly and bust your face. This would go on until it was time to walk home and end our afternoon of fun.

In the summer…

There was more time during the day and Alexis and I vowed to explore the “tunnels” until we got to the other side because by now they had taken on a life of their own and were more than just a water pipe diverting water through the city.

The corrugated pipe with the big creek was impassable because the water never slowed down enough to even consider going into that dark and scary hole.

The second option was much more inviting. By summer, the creek turned into more of a trickle. Alexis and I told our parents some semi-plausible story not involving tunnels and then collected walking sticks, flashlights and provisions for our exploration. Probably liverwurst sandwiches. Because “liver is the worst, but liverwurst is the best.” This was a saying we made up one previous afternoon.

After climbing up the rocks to the entrance of the concrete pipe, Alexis and I made our way up it by straddling the now small creek; like penguins, flashlights in hand feebly revealing what was ahead of us. Real or imagined rodents scrambled away through the smaller pipes branching to the sides of our dim walkway.

Then, amazingly, the formerly round pipe opened up into a huge squarish area much larger than what we had encountered in our journey so far. Our six foot tall tunnel turned into a huge space much wider and taller than our previously cramped area. Dim light from somewhere provided an eerie feel to what was now more like a gigantic, long room. It was full of sand, some rocks, a bit of human trash and various debris.

It looked desolate and a bit freakish. Alexis and I dubbed the new area “the catacombs” and we dared not continue further that day. We ate our lunch… er, I mean provisions, and turned back the way we came.

Day two

During our next foray we found that the round part of the tunnels didn’t last as long as we previously thought and we made our way to the catacombs quickly.

Alexis and I looked for elves, dwarves, and goblins first as boys that age would do after reading certain books. Not finding any, we then searched for other treasures in the catacombs under the city.

What we did find was that it really wasn’t a catacomb at all. By our definition catacombs were a series of large, walkable tunnels going in all directions. This was more of a really, really long concrete room with another smaller, darker tunnel at the far end.

We could just make out the sounds of the mechanical prisoners in the wax museum through a steel grate in the street far above us. That meant we were under the city and right in front of the old jailhouse. Exciting!

We recognized that this grate and the others (like the one down by the Tollgate saloon) were for water run-off in the city. This explained the river-like sediment through the chamber and also meant that we should never ever be here in the rain.

We ate our provisions more soberly this time. Wondering aloud what the weather might do – we headed back where we came and emerged into full sunlight.

Another summer day

When the weather was definitely not going to include rain, Alexis and I planned a trip back to the catacombs to discover what mysteries were beyond that next dark tunnel entrance.

Up close it looked like the opening to a mine. In we went, only to find that the going was much tougher. We continued with sometimes brick or some really old concrete and even with timber supports in places.

Scrambling over many fallen sections and squeezing through some really tights areas Alexis and I crawled out into daylight again at last.

We exited the tunnel just past the second “free parking” lot, well on our way to Nevadaville. Dusting off our clothes, we walked down past the second and first free parking lots, the triangle (paid) parking lot and the old jailhouse turned museum we had passed from below hours earlier.

In the days of summer that year and next, I ventured all the way through maybe two of three more times. But only ever with friends, probably Jimmy and maybe some of the other “Tolkieneers.”

This was our band of five boys that hung out sometimes and did boys stuff like this together in the late 70’s.

Republished courtesy of Brian Gibbins at www.elevation9640.com.

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