Your guide to the long-abandoned underground passages of Lebanon, PA

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Just about every place I’ve lived, underground passages have captured the public imagination. Lebanon is no exception.

If you are a member of the Lebanon PA Over 40 group on Facebook, you’ve probably seen dozens of posts about various rumors – as one group administrator pointed out, “Seems like every street had a tunnel that connected to Light’s Fort at 11th”.

Thanks to the Lebanon County Historical Society I am able to shed some more light around the hearsay and rumors that seem so fantastical, and I believe that most folks will be satisfied that yes there were (and are!) underground passages in the downtown area.

The major piece of evidence comes from the Lebanon Daily News’ July 2, 1940 edition on the 200th anniversary of Lebanon City. Thanks to the Hauck Memorial Archives for identifying this article.

The article mentions two separate tunnels.

The first tunnel mentioned was at the site of the former Lebanon County Court House, which according to the article had been formerly the site of a pre-revolution house owned by Peter Shindel. Reads the article: “From the cellar of this house to the Light fort at tenth and Maple Streets, there was a tunnel to permit the populace to escape during Indian raids.”

Shindel was said to have built another tunnel from the same cellar that led to the woods at Tenth and Willow Streets.

Both tunnels were said to have been closed in the 1870’s, “but up to that time adventurous boys followed them to the court house cellar.”

In April 2013, the Friends of Light’s Fort posted this picture showing organization secretary Pat McAteer pointing out where perhaps the door to the tunnel might have been.

The Lebanon Daily News has looked into this topic more recently. One of the articles, written by Brad Rhen in 2009, is no longer accessible. Another, from 2016, quotes Sandy Jones, chairperson of The Friends of Light’s Fort Committee of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lebanon County, as saying the tunnel rumors are too numerous to be ignored. She told the paper that, “Someone closed up the door to the tunnel in the ’40s or ’50s.”

Short of new documentary evidence or a surprise cash injection to survey for a tunnel, we will probably have to leave the existence of the Light’s Fort tunnel as very probable but not definite.

Lebanon has more modern underground infrastructure that is sometimes discussed in the same conversation. Namely, the steam tunnels running from the old steam plant at 7th and Willow Streets. Steam tunnels are a common fixture of cities and campuses across the country; Penn Staters might be familiar with the extensive network that underlies the University Park campus. But these tunnels were industrial in use and not meant for personal transit.

Another piece of subterranean infrastructure: The Comfort Station, a $44,000 public bathroom underground Ninth and Cumberland in downtown Lebanon. The project had been a contentious push since the 30’s but the article says that recent increases in population and the establishment of the military camp at Indiantown Gap “made the project imperative.” Almost half the money for the project was paid by the Lebanon County Commissioners.

As of December 1942, the site was an air raid shelter as it was said that it could be damaged by a direct hit only.

The facility also had some perhaps predictable incidents, one from 1969 involving a hand grenade explosion and another involving what seems to be an early heroin overdose a couple years later.

Local historian John Nye compiled this blueprint showing the full setup and also identified a period picture of the bathrooms.

The comfort stations were shut down as of December 24, 1971 as a money-saving plan, but they were reopened two and a half years later after another public debate. This decision, too, proved contentious, as evidenced from this political ad from May 1975.

The Lebanon Daily News does not record a closure for the facility but mentions of it decline precipitously in the following years. According to Nye, the stairs were covered with stones and then concrete was used to seal the entrance, so the chambers may still be extant to this day.

We certainly haven’t dug up all of Lebanon County’s hidden underground chambers in this post, but if we missed something I hope you’ll let me know in the comments or by dropping me an email.

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