Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

Into the Abyss

Edna Metz Wells Park drain, image credit: John Morris

The Raleigh I grew up in was a small dusty, small southern capital where most everyone knew everyone. Part of the circle included the son of the taxidermist at the old Museum of Natural History who imparted to his son a knowledge and appreciation for the natural world. Carl’s decidedly New Orleanian, Charlestonesque flavored rental on North Street provided a locus for our detailed weekend explorations of that world frequently involving Raleigh’s numerous subterranean conduits, local manifestations of urban waterways buried in concrete coast to coast spawned by a now-contested gestalt that nature was an entity to be separated from. This segregation, while bad for the life of streams proved an irresistable benefit to us growing up near downtown Raleigh, illustrated by a chum I found in a storm drain down from Wiley before and after school.

Edna Metz Wells Park drain, image credit: John Morris

The cool, plashing waters of Pigeon House aka “Wolf” Branch, Rocky Branch, Crabtree, Beaverdam, House Creek and others provided respite from those blistering hot summer days BAC (before AC). The ignorant masses called them sewers but we knew a creek when we saw one, even those which required travel in complete darkness and a certain sort of faith to reach the daylight at the other end, a practice refined and mechanized by my elder brother Kurt and his late bud Greg Shriver with their “sewer cart.” These conduits are still available to the adventurer, specifically at both ends of the Edna Metz Wells park, under Western Boulevard by the prison and all through downtown. A detailed Raleigh map or Google Earth can get you as lost as you wish.

NC State Steam Tunnels, image credit: John Morris

One hazardous coming-of-age obligation was NCSU’s complex subterranean central-heating system, accessable via a pre-9/11 insouciance about locks. The “steam tunnels” presented multiple opportunities to go and get low, complete with truly dangerous pitfalls and blind tunnels.

NC State Steam Tunnels, image credit: John Morris

Not all of it was all fun and games. Utility workers performing routine maintenance once discovered the bed, drafting board and refrigerator of one of my father’s Design students trying to stretch his college budget. Sadly The “Little Washington” murders and the associated Dungeons and Dragons play made famous by that lurid case obliterated any lingering chance of adventure under ‘State. Don’t even try without first hiring a lawyer.

Slowly, inexorably, the press of employees operating under orders or else with time to kill and nothing else to do began to discover and seal our buried world. Still it is remarkable how much of it escaped notice. Such was the case of the “Grotto.” not Hugh Hefner’s joint, rather a post last-call, late-night possibility back in the mid-eighties when rock ruled Steve Guth’s appropriately named Fallout Shelter across from the Roast Grill. When conditions were right and the cat was away (sorry Steve), the sage soaked, black-clad tribe would rustle a keg, ice, a Rubbermaid and boom-boxes. Thump, thump, up the concrete stairs, out of the alley, around the corner, west on Morgan and under the bridge. Some distance down CSX’s tracks a sort of plank road fashioned from abandoned pallets led up the embankment to a gaping breach in a brick wall where “someone” had converted one of Dillon Supply Company‘s disused basements into a perfect party space stretching back into the gloom as far as one’s hallucinogenic state led one to believe it did. There we conducted ourselves in high-goth fashion, rolling and tumbling in the flickering, beer soaked gloom.

Inside one of the Dillon Buildings, but not the "Grotto". Image credit: John Morris

Our little local Hellfire club persisted literally for years until one blistering August afternoon after everyone had gone home the world fell in. The “parking lot” above, actually a ceiling, gave way under the mass of a maneuvering semi-truck and contents. The Grotto would be a mystery to this day save for some full-of-beans “satanic” grafitti which drew in the cops, made the paper and ignited a municipal theological spasm that led to the sealing of our nocturnal playground.

View of Capitol Building from the underground tunnels beneath it. Image credit: anapplesnail

I can’t/won’t say which from which Oakwood rental the tunnel to the governor’s mansion leads nor would I advise you try and find it. It is enough to quietly accept its practical exigencies and have a bit of fun speculating on its purposes. As with covert connections between Wilmington’s mansions and waterfront, I suppose one have to get the girls, gold and dope in and out without being detected somehow.

You can read more of Peter’s musings at his blog, petrblt.

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