by Tim Gilmore, 12/3/2016
Billy says he and his friends slipped through an aperture into a system of extensive tunnels beneath the Barnett Mansion in Springfield. I’m skeptical, but Billy’s a sharp student, a responsible kid, who works hard and seems sincere. In high school, Billy belonged to the National Honor Society, his school’s math club, and the ROTC. He’s incredibly believable, even when what he says is not.
In late 2015, Billy had attended meetings for DeMolay International, the adolescent boys’ and young men’s Masonic order, at the Barnett Mansion for three years. The Solomon Lodge, the city’s oldest Masonic institution, formed in 1848, has owned the mansion since the Barnett family sold it in 1941.
Occasionally, Billy says, the DeMolay boys found themselves unsupervised. They’d been intrigued with a fissure in the cellar, and one night, they seized the opportunity to slip into it. Billy claims the boys crept through underground
tunnels for hours, often with little idea of what direction they wandered. When they reemerged into the cellar of the Barnett Mansion around two in the morning, they’d roamed far dark distances beneath the Victorian neighborhood of Springfield, only then realizing how dangerous their night wanderings had been.
Billy says the tunnels were tight and in bad repair, and at 6’3” and 230 pounds, he doesn’t easily squeeze through narrow spaces. Since almost no one knew of the tunnels’ existence, had they collapsed, it would have seemed the boys had vanished from the earth. Instead, they’d have vanished into the earth.
Supposedly the Barnett family, who founded Florida’s Barnett Bank in the late 1800s, had tunnels dug beneath the two-story Colonial Revival mansion on East First Street, passageways that stretched all the way to the Barnett Bank buildings downtown.
Though (at least) a few blocks of underground tunnels connect the 1909 Atlantic National Bank skyscraper at 121 Forsyth, the 1902 Old Florida National Bank Building at the corner of Laura and Forsyth Streets, and the 18 story Barnett National Bank Building constructed in 1926 at 112 West Adams, the idea of century-old tunnels connecting Forsyth Street downtown 12 blocks north to Springfield strains credulity.
As chief city preservationist Joel McEachin says, “Secret tunnels are usually urban legends.” Such tunnels would have bored through Florida’s wet and swampy natural foundations for at least 12 blocks, navigated buried utilities, and somehow dipped beneath Hogans Creek, which kept the Great Fire of 1901 from moving north from Jacksonville proper to Springfield. McEachin also points out the difficulties of “major underground contamination” both from Hogans Creek, which residents used as a landfill for decades, and the old Jacksonville Gas Company.
I’ve not wandered Barnett’s tunnels beneath the city, but I’ve stood in the glass and steel apex of the 42-story Barnett Tower, and I’ve looked from the central attic dormer of the old mansion’s façade and from the widow’s walk that emerges from the roofline toward Main Street.
I once asked a children’s writing workshop to create their perfect urban setting, either far up in the tallest structure that looked out over the city and surrounding landscape or far underground in secret cells in subterranean honeycombs. I’d assumed most children would seize upon the private space tall above the urban environs, but 23 of 26 children, aged nine to 12, instead imagined cities underground and their own particular places within the earth.
Perhaps their choices had to do with their ages. They had yet to determine their immersions from safe childhood spaces into the independent light.
Then again, the ancient allure of such deep earthen worlds-within-the-earth (like Derinkuyu in Cappadocia, or the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland, or Dixia Cheng, the crumbling city beneath Beijing built to survive a Nuclear Holocaust) is strong.
When I was a child, my fundamentalist Baptist parents were staunchly opposed to Communism, liberalism, rock music, television, homosexuality, feminism, Civil Rights, and boys growing their hair long. They were also highly suspicious of Masonic groups. When my father found out that one of my friends at church was a member of DeMolay, he warned me that both DeMolay and Rainbow Girls, the girls’ and young women’s organization, took an oath to keep Masonic secrets, and that members who revealed such secrets had their tongues cut out.
The great strength of conspiracy theories and urban legends is that you can’t prove a negative. No one can scientifically prove Santa Claus does not exist. Donald Trump became the 45th president after saying, on the campaign trail, that the unemployment rate was perhaps 42 percent when it was really around 5. The day after Trump’s election victory, he thanked Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist behind infowars.com, for his support. Jones believes that the United States government orchestrated the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and that the Sandy Hook Massacre, in which Adam Lanza shot and murdered 20 elementary school children, was faked by the government. Though the principal’s daughter later demanded Trump denounce Alex Jones, the president-elect has repeatedly praised Jones and offered to be on his radio show again soon.
So maybe every suspicion is true. Maybe extensive tunnels spider out from beneath the Barnett Mansion. Maybe Jewish bankers secretly control the city from underground. Maybe “9/11 was an inside job.” Maybe the parents who mourned their murdered children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were faking. Maybe Billy should never have squealed about the underground tunnels. Maybe the Masons will cut out his tongue. At least they don’t have access to the nuclear launch codes.