Two historians explore Salem's underground system piece by piece - KPTV - FOX 12

Two historians explore Salem's underground system piece by piece

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SALEM, OR (KPTV) -

A secretive world sits untouched under the streets of Salem.  A world two historians are fighting to preserve as they unearth it piece by piece.

Salem's underground system was so complex in the late 1800's, historians say people could move from one building to the next without being seen. Over the years many of those downtown tunnels were filled in during sewer construction, or sidewalk repairs.

But, pieces of that world still exist.

The curtains are drawn at the Grand Ballroom Theatre, the seats are empty and yet owner Vincenzo Meduri says it doesn't feel empty. Not to him.

"Anytime I walk into the theatre by myself I say 'hi' to the ghosts and tell them it's OK and that I'm friendly and I hope for the best," said Owner Vincenzo Meduri.

He's kidding. Sort of.

"It's been fine really, they're nice ghosts so it's no problem," he joked.

Meduri and his company Enlightened Theatrics now learning to live alongside the lingering spirits from a life that once existed beneath their stage.

"There was a whole underground system in Salem we were a part of it," said Meduri.

A secretive lair under the theatre exposed only recently by Linfield College Professor John Ritter and Rebecca Maitland Courtney of the Reed Opera House.

"I am kind of known as the Nancy Drew for the professor," said Reed Opera House Creative Director and Vice President Rebecca Maitland Courtney.  "I'm the one who crawls around in places."

It was the two's infatuation with history that brought them to the theatre one day, on a hunch they just might find what they've been looking for beyond a peculiar looking door.

"Watch your step, we're going about 20 feet underground," said Ritter.

A place, they say, no one has been to in decades. Which begs the question how they knew it existed at all.

"Oh gee that's an interesting story, but we don't say anything about it," said Ritter. "Some things we don't talk about."

"The professor gets me in a whole lot of shenanigans and sometimes I get him in some," said Maitland Courtney. 

The two never know what they'll find on their covert missions below ground.

"I've climbed over book cases, I've climbed through catacombs passage ways and ended up in some interesting situations," said Maitland Courtney. 

Under the theatre, they say they discovered opium dens from the late 1800's.

"These rooms weren't used to store stuff, they were used to get ripped in," said Ritter.

Reminders of what used to be.

"Salem has a secret history a history that involves madams, the Chinese, the KKK and the word racism," said Ritter. "You have to remember minorities were not allowed to recreate above ground so they had to go down here to recreate."

It's the latest find in their quest to connect pieces of Salem's long lost underground.

"You know there's tree huggers and history huggers, so were trying to preserve this happened here," said Maitland Courtney.

Something they've been doing for years.

"Salem is ringed in tunnels. When people wanted to do things and didn't want to be seen above ground they dug tunnels, very popular," said Ritter. "There's hotels, bedrooms, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and a shooting range all underground."

Most of those tunnels are sealed off from the public. These two are hunting for the ones that aren't.

"You don't know what has survived different construction projects, so it takes a lot of exploring," said Maitland Courtney.

They've found antique bank vaults and an intact gold drop among countless relics from another time.

"This cow bell was found attached to let people in the tunnel know when police were coming in," said Ritter.

"We're uncovering classic stories of Chinese heroes, successful business people and Chinese suffragettes," said Maitland Courtney. "I think that's the coolest thing ever."

Stories of places they hope to someday share with the public as part of a guided tour.

"It's important to tell history, it's what a history teacher does," said Ritter.

A professor and his sidekick, tirelessly working to protect a forgotten life.

"People need to know about this," said Ritter. "They walk around above ground in Salem and have no idea why a downstairs door welded shut, or why there are tunnels underneath the city in the first place. They have no idea and I'd like to tell them."

The two plan to offer guided tours below the theatre soon, but say the last time they went public with one of their finds some 400 people showed up on the first night.

They don't want to disturb business, so they're thinking about doing some sort of golden ticket raffle to get below the Grand Ballroom Theatre.  Those details are still in the works.

For more information on other guided tours of Salem's Underground visit: http://www.travelsalem.com/events/salem-underground-and-downtown-historical-tours

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