Dayton VA tunnel could be reopened

Once erased from the map, 150-year-old Dayton VA tunnel could be reopened

When Mark Kucharski disobeyed orders as an engineer for the local veterans hospital and cemetery, he expected to get chewed out by his bosses, but he didn’t know if the historic tunnel he put his job on the line for would ever be unearthed.

Kucharski was ordered in the early 1990s to demolish a set of old utility tunnels on the Dayton VA campus on West Third Street. Included in the demolition plans was a funeral tunnel built in the 1870s that led from the site of a former hospital to what is now the Dayton National Cemetery.

Instead of going through with the plans, he erased the funeral tunnel from a map of the project and later walled it off with the hope that he’d be able to one day help restore it. Decades later, his wish is on the verge of becoming a reality.

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“This guy that was in charge of the project from Washington, he called me up and just ripped me a new one,” Kucharski said. “I told him right there, I said: that’s a piece of history…this shouldn’t be taken out.”

Exit from the funeral tunnel at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton (Dayton VA) around 1890. The tunnel ran from basement morgue to the cemetery. DAYTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
Photo: Staff Writer

The Dayton National Cemetery Support Committee is working to reopen the tunnel and have its deteriorated stonework and steps restored. The restoration is estimated to cost around $250,000 or so and could be completed as soon as the fall of 2020, said Dennis Adkins, a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge who is leading the project.

Ball State University researchers developed three restoration options for the historic tunnel, which is believed to be the only one from just after the civil war still in existence, said Sara Amy Leach, a historian with the National Cemetery Administration.

One option would be to simply reconstruct the facade of the tunnel by building a new limestone entrance, steps wrapping around it and an iron gate. Another option would be to restore the entrance and just a small portion of the tunnel while a third option would be to restore the entire passage, including a receiving vault.

The tunnel was originally a utility tunnel for the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers which opened in Dayton in 1867 and was the third of its kind to house and care for veterans of the Civil War, according to the NCA. When soldiers started dying, the hospital staff began using the tunnel and from there they would transport the bodies in a horse drawn carriage to a graveside, said Adkins.

“They didn’t want to upset the other people that were there,” Adkins said. “They didn’t want the other soldiers to have seen one of their comrades being taken out and buried.”

‘In good shape’

When it was used in the late 1800s, the tunnel had a large arched opening made of block limestone, was flanked on each side by steps and a railing and was sealed with a wrought iron fence. Today, the steps have mostly deteriorated, much of the stone is gone and the entrance has been closed off with limestone.

Despite erosion, the tunnel is in remarkably good shape for having been built around 150 years ago, said Jonathan Spodek, professor of architecture and director of the graduate program in historic preservation at Ball State.

Adkins recruited Ball State to research and investigate the tunnel. The work amounted to a $10,0o0 gift to the cemetery, according to the National Cemetery Administration.

“We were able to get a really good understanding of what was there,” Spodek said. “It’s in very good shape and we have very good documentation of what it looks like.”

Spodek, along with graduate students in the program he leads, inspected the tunnel to see how feasible it would be to refurbish. Rather than entering the tunnel themselves, Spodek and his team were able to inspect the passage through a manhole and used technology including ground penetrating radar and digital photography to create measurements and images of what is believed to be below the surface.

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The red brick barrel-shaped tunnel is 7 feet tall, 8 feet wide and about 50 feet of the originally 300-foot long passage is still intact, according to a report completed by Spodek’s team.

A small breach in the wall of the tunnel was located during Ball State’s inspection but it should be easy to fix, Spodek said. The breach was likely caused by either a tree root, cemetery digging equipment or a railroad that previously ran over the tunnel, Spodek said.

“This is the beginning of a challenging process and the structural needs there have really yet to be identified,” Leach said. “It’s not like a building where the windows are missing and you’re just going to pop in a window that will look the same. It’s environment has changed dramatically in the last 100-plus years.”

‘Story of the tunnel’

The hospital the tunnel served was built after president Abraham Lincoln signed the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Act in 1865.

The act led to the opening of the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1867 on what is now the campus of the Dayton VA Medical Center. At first the facility housed nearly 600 veterans and eventually became home to more than 4,000, according to Ball State.

The number of deaths at the hospital peaked around 1,400 toward the end of the century, leading to the use of the tunnel, Leach said. Though the hospital burned down in 1942, the funeral tunnel remained, according to Ball State’s study.

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For a funeral procession from the tunnel, a body was transported to the tunnel in a casket and placed on a small flat car and moved through the underground passage, according to Ball State. The funeral corps would then place the casket into the waiting horse-drawn hearse and a line of forty or more soldiers would form outside the tunnel entrance.

Memorial Day services at the National Cemetery in Dayton. Eric Dietrich/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

“The story of the tunnel is amazing,” Leach said. “It is a unique resource for us and it doesn’t look like it should…I hope Judge Adkins perseveres.”

The National Cemetery Administration is responsible for maintaining more than 1,330 monuments at more than 136 national cemeteries in 40 states, according to the agency.

Though the NCA tries to maintain all of its monuments, Leach said having that many to safeguard can be challenging. It means proposals such as the one for the funeral tunnel don’t always get funding as the agency balances its resources between its historical sites and facilities and the burial services it provides to veterans.

If its rehabilitated, the tunnel could not only serve as a tool for historical research but as another monument to memorialize the men and women of the armed forces, both Leach and Adkins said.

“We have to honor the men and women that are buried there,” Adkins said. “What better way is there than to preserve the history out there in the cemetery.

‘There was hope’

Kucharski first tried to get the tunnel renovated in the late 1980s, before it was ordered destroyed.

He talked someone into donating the limestone blocks to have the entrance reconstructed but he said his plans hit a roadblock when the federal government got involved. The project was assigned to another engineer, but it went nowhere, Kucharski said.

“As long as the tunnel was still in the ground, there was hope that somebody would at some time resurrect it,” Kucharski said. “I just didn’t know if I’d see it in my lifetime.”

For years, Kucharski said he thought the tunnel might be a “lost cause.” Then, the project got off the ground thanks to the “tenacity” of Adkins, said Kucharski.

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Kucharski, 70, is a Vietnam War vet who served as a sergeant in the Army. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 11 years ago but believes the cancer will catch up with him sooner rather than later.

Dayton National Cemetery 4100 W. Third Street was established in 1867. Gates are open daily from dawn to dusk. Staff Photo by Jim Witmer
Photo: Staff Writer

“It’s amazing how that puts everything into perspective,” Kucharski said of his diagnosis. “That’s why I’m so happy about this…I might not live long enough to see it and if I don’t I can at least die with the assurance that it’s going to get done.”

Kucharski already has a plot selected for himself in Dayton National Cemetery. He’ll be buried not too far from his old office there, he said.

If the tunnel Kucharski helped save is restored before his death, he said he’d like to be one of the first people to use it again. It’s a goal that Adkins said he’s racing to meet for his friend.

“That would be nice,” Kucharski said “To be buried there…that’s going to be my greatest honor.”

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