by Scott Walker
In search of life under Lebanon, TN
After hearing people talk about homeless living "Under" the Lebanon, Tennessee square in a cave of sorts, I grew more and more curious about the scenario. I then searched online to find any information I could eventually locating an article in the Lebanon Democrat newspaper from 2013.
The article started with, "While it may come as no surprise to long time Lebanon residents, others are shocked to learn that an underground cavern runs along the creek bed beneath the Lebanon Town Square." So, that got me even more curious as to what or who was under the Lebanon square.
For those who know me I am sure you also know what is next... I had to see for myself. Why? Well, because if you hear something or read something, you cannot take it as truth until you see that something with your own eyes.
Yes, I went to the Lebanon square with my friend Jeff Paul who is an avid cave explorer. With words like "Cavern" in an article, what cave explorer would not be in!
Cavern: a cave, or a chamber in a cave, typically a large one. Or used in similes and comparisons to refer to a vast, dark space.
Jeff and I made our way down an old concrete wall and descended into the creek. A small water snake scurried away and under a rock as I landed into the slop that was about 2 inches deep.
Headed towards the square we made our way under the decrepit Gay Street bridge. I say decrepit because those who travel over it likely don't see the aging condition of it from below. The cracks, how it sits uneven, etc.
From Gay Street we make our way under a paved parking area beneath Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center. You can see where past floods have washed debris under the bridge and parking pad, but no signs of people.
From Quick Lane we ventured under the sacred Capitol Theater. No, it's not really sacred, but it is pretty cool to still have a movie theater on your town square. Especially one that sits inside of a building that was built in 1900, according to property records.
The 10,665 square foot theater sits about ten feet above Sinking Creek. The building is supported with thick concrete and iron girders likely from pre-1900.
At some point, a concrete ceiling was added in the tunnel under the theater allowing for water to pass without actually touching the beams supporting the building. Over the years, that concrete chipped away now exposing a mixture of steel rebar, iron and/or steel.
Still looking for signs of life and a cavern... as in the large room of a cave - we have found nothing and we were not under the main portion of the Lebanon square yet.
Turning towards the square we ventured under several boutique type shops that occupy buildings on South Cumberland Street (231 South) at Highway 70 or West Main Street that all date back to the early 1900's if not before. I question the property assessor's dates as many buildings in counties all over the state are labeled as being built in 1900 even though they were actually built sometime before that date.
As we step through water sometimes up to our knees, we make our way under the Southwest side of the square... or at least the buildings on the Southwest portion of the Lebanon Square.
The first thing Jeff notices on the rear of one of the buildings (Public Square 132), is a door to nowhere. The door is on the rear of the building 15 feet above our heads. If you were inside the structure and decided to step out for a smoke, you would fall into the creek bed below that we were standing in.
Jeff Paul points out the metal workings of what was once was a walkway, a fire exit with steps or perhaps a bridge to the neighboring movie theater. But, there is no rear door on the theater building which is maybe 10-feet from the rear of the building on the Southwest corner of the square.
We then venture towards and then under West Main Street. The tunnels grow darker, the water deeper. At this point, there is no dry spot for anyone to live. Openings every 40 to 50 feet are on one side of the tunnels allowing for storm runoff water to enter from above.
An orange extension chord hangs above our heads going from the underbelly of one building connecting to another about 100-feet away. Tree limbs washed down by floodwaters cling to the edge of the walls and a mixture of rock, concrete and mud sit on the floor covered by water. Still, no campers and few dry spots.
The structures above are made out of wood, no iron or steel beams... only wood with concrete and brick sides lining the tunnels at this point. Keep in mind, the above buildings date back to the 1900's if not before.
Lebanon, TN was incorporated in 1801 and named after the cedars of Lebanon in the Bible. By 1850, the city had a population of 1,554 residents. It grew to 3,659 in 1910 and by 1960, a little over 10,500 people called Lebanon home. Today, the population is closer to 32,000.
As for the Lebanon Square, which we were partially under at this point, it dates back to the 1850's. Early photographs are stored at the City of Lebanon Museum and History Center along with the Vise Library at Cumberland University. Some photos are also at the Tennessee State Library of Archives.
One photo is believed to be from 1859 and shows the northeast corner of the town square. Perhaps the Southwest corner also dates to the 1850's... which is wild to imagine we were standing in a historic creek under historic buildings that are over 100 years old - 167 years old to be more precise.
Walking in water we made our way under what is now labeled "Betty's Couture," a small clothing store on West Main Street. The tunnel was dark and emptied into a swampy mess behind a row of businesses that front Highway 70 or West Main Street. We then took a right to head deeper and again, back under the Lebanon Square.
Stepping over what looked to be the old tile floor from years past, we made our way down another dark tunnel of water.
Could this be the way to the cavern that is noted in that 2013 article found in the Lebanon Democrat? Unfortunately, no. There was no vast cavern in a cave. It was only the cavern of tunnels and places for storm water to drain under the town square.
But wait... At the end of the last tunnel with the Neddy Jacobs Cabin above our heads, we found the opening of what looked to be a deep underwater cave. However, it would take diving equipment and more to venture into the deep waters.
No one is currently living under the Lebanon square and we did not see anything that would lead us to believe someone had been living under the buildings. If they were living under the buildings in the past, they have since moved on.
See more photos on Scott Walkers' blog, SmallTownBigWorld.com