Living in Jackson

The History Mystery

September 4, 2020

While clearing undergrowth behind our buildings we discovered buried rooms. At the end of the second room was an 18-inch chute leading to the surface. That was July 31st, a week before we discovered the second chute.

Our workers have urged me to let them break through a wall in what they call, the bunker, to find more underground rooms. The reason they see low spots in the pavement near the foundation outlines of former buildings. These depressions indicate to them that more rooms exist. The idea of uncovering more secrets from the past intrigues me too, but I do believe in doing my homework.

Ella Sharp Museum provided Sanborn Fire Insurance maps showing the Commercial Exchange property as far back as 1907.

Architecture Historian, Elaine Robinson, of the Commonwealth Heritage Group said she noticed rebar used in the bunkers concrete ceiling from the pictures I sent. She said steel rebar was not used to strengthen concrete until around the 1920s. Her information helps date the room's construction.

A City of Jackson Engineer emailed maps of sewer and water lines surrounding the building so we will not accidentally drill through a water main or bust into a sewer line.

I call Ted Ligibel, the historical preservation consultant who researched the Commercial Exchange history and secured the building’s listing as a National Historic Site. Ted sent a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map dated 1907-1929. He said, “I am guessing this bunker was related to the woodworking area of the Jackson Vehicle Company. Is it near the coal room that is adjacent to the railroad line? From looking at the pictures you sent, I would speculate it was an equipment room. That small metal wheel in the upper corner may have been a damper control for a furnace or other heat-emitting machine. Also, the curved track-like lines on the map are a railroad siding that went directly into the company lumber yard.”

Our workers are anxious. I imagine they are hoping to find suitcases of stashed cash, gold bricks, or maybe a keg of aged whiskey. I watch as Al wheels the long arm of the excavator claw and hard-taps the center of the slab north of the bunker, next to the building. They are trying to convince me. The ground vibrates. It does sound hollow.

It is almost a week after the bunker discovery. Dave and Al are back to work. They chain-saw scrub trees, cut brush, and scoop load after a load of broken bricks into dumpsters headed for the landfill.

Al is on the excavator. He has uncovered a cutout at the edge of a concrete slab beside the building. It appears to be another chute leading downward. We gather to watch as the men clear debris. The oblong shape stands out like a missing front tooth on a 6-year old’s grin. It is obvious to all of us this chute was poured in place for a purpose. It is about the same size and angles down as the one discovered in the bunker.

The guys grab shovels to clear loose soil. They chainsaw tree roots, pull twirled wires from the hole, dig further down, and find … dirt.

Undeterred, they suggest we rent a core drill to drill down from the surface to avoid the danger of busting through a wall in a confined underground space with the dangers of methane gas.

I call and within 30 minutes Consumers Energy’s underground gas testing team arrives. They tell us coal miners used parakeets, and if the birds dropped, the miners high-tailed it out of the mine. Their team used a high-tech gas-smelling device.

The concrete is ten inches deep. It does not take long. Dave removes the core and finds … more dirt. “Since we already have the drill,” the man says, “why not check that sunken spot in the slab south of the bunker?” Why not indeed. Dave spirals the drill bit through ten inches of concrete in minutes, removes the core and finds … even more dirt. At least we didn’t find methane gas.

I am not as disappointed as the men are. For the past week I have been researching Sanborn Insurance Company maps.

An 1899 map shows the building owned by the Jackson Vehicle company, a manufacturer of buggies, carts and horse-drawn carriages. No structures are shown on what we now know as the bunker site.

On a map dated 1907-1910, the block-long property is still owned by the Jackson Vehicle Company. Nothing is built on the bunker site, but a railroad siding is added running northwest from the MCRR spur through the parking lot all the way to Horton Street. The siding is lined on either side with stacks of hardwood lumber.

Sometime between 1907 and 1929 a steam dry kiln is added over the bunker site. At the time hardwood was used to build the Jackson Automobile.

In 1929 the building is owned by the United States Tax Company. The steam dry kiln still shows on the map.

In 1930 the building is owned by the Cardon Phonocraft Corporation, manufacturers of radios and radio bulbs. The former steam dry kiln building is now listed as a truck repair shop. The railroad spur has changed curse and now runs along the west side of the shop and ends before the main building.

Two maps are dated 1931-1941 with different findings. On the first map the property is owned by the Sparks Withington Company and a 12 by 24-foot truck repair shop is shown on the onetime steam dry kiln building. At the time the company built fine radios cabinets from hardwood.

In the second map dated 1931-1941 the property is still owned by Sparks Withington. The southern 12 feet of the steam dry kiln building is removed. The remaining structure adjacent to the building is now listed as a boiler room. During WWI and WWII Sparks Withington built Link Pilot Trainers, stamped steel helmets, mustard gas alarms, and bomb release mechanisms. They must have had a foundry somewhere in the area for molten steel.

I wonder if the bunker was an equipment room for a steam dry kiln. Or, was it built for use by a truck repair shop? Or, was it used for secure storage of vital raw materials during WWI and WWII? Or, was it built for some other purpose? The history of the bunker remains a mystery.