What would motivate someone to hand dig a 100-foot-long tunnel 23 feet underground?
In 1985, Paso Robles city officials weren't interested in why; they just saw the nearly century-old tunnel as a safety hazard.
On July 17, 1985, Telegram-Tribune reporter Phil Dirkx took one last look before it was filled with sand and sealed off.
Work on Paso tunnel sparks interest in its origin and use
Never miss a local story.
Somerset Robinson was his name. Some people say he was a retired sea captain, but others think he had been an Army surgeon.
Almost a century ago, in 1892, he had a tunnel built under the spacious grounds of his two-story brick house in Paso Robles. The house was on a hill near what is now the intersection of 11th and Olive streets.
This month, city officials decided the part of Robinson’s tunnel that ran under Olive Street was a possible hazard.
They dug it open, filled it with sand and repaved over it. Robinson built his tunnel long before there was Olive Street. The tunnel went down 23 feet and extended 100 feet underground, according to Virginia Peterson, president of El Paso de Robles Historical Society.
She said the entrance to the tunnel sloped down from a gazebo near Robinson’s house. The other end was at the bottom of a hill where he had gardens and a fish pond, according to reports.
Robinson had plenty of headroom in his tunnel. Its arched ceiling was 7 feet high. Its floor was paved with tiles. Hollow niches were built into its walls, possibly to hold lamps or candles.
It was skillfully built with a double layer of bricks. When city officials entered it earlier this month, they found it still tight and unbroken.
Many years after Robinson had the tunnel built, his property was split up. Part of the hillside over the tunnel was then cut away for the construction of Olive Street.
City officials recently discovered the street was just a few inches above the top of the tunnel, but years of traffic rumbling overhead had not cracked it.
Why did Robinson build his intriguing underground passageway?
Paso Robles residents have speculated on that question for years and have developed some spicy theories.
But historian Peterson said he built it for a prosaic reason, “to avoid going up and down the hill.” The hill was steep. When Olive Street was first constructed, its two lanes were on different levels. One lane was 6 to 8 feet higher than the other with a brick retaining wall between them. The city later removed the retaining wall and leveled the street.
Robinson’s house eventually passed to other owners and finally was destroyed by fire. Veterinarian B.R. Bryant of Paso Robles is now building apartments on the site.
Machinery grading the hillside for his development broke a small hole in the tunnel, and this reminded city officials about it.
Jay Lyon, Paso Robles’ municipal services director, feared the tunnel might cave in under a heavy truck on Olive Street. He decided the city did not need a claim filed against it, so he ordered it filled.
During the many years the tunnel was abandoned, it was not entirely unused. Around 1977, Bryant found the upper end of the tunnel had been opened by storm water and some boys. The boys had built a wooden frame around the opening and covered it with a garbage can lid. Bryant sealed his end of the tunnel and is having it demolished before building the apartments.
In the 1930s, when Don Orcutt of Paso Robles was in high school, his family lied in a house in Robinson’s former gardens near the other end of the tunnel.
The Orcutts kept garden tools behind a lattice-work gate. Inside the tunnel, several feet from the entrance, the passage had been blocked by a brick wall, he said. That wall did not quite reach the ceiling.
Later the Orcutts closed their end of the tunnel with timbers and dirt, but from time to time people managed to get into it. Modern graffiti and litter were found in the tunnel beyond the wall this month.
When city workers dug down to open the tunnel, residents dug up some of their stories about it.
Some people said they heard Jesse James, the famous bandit, used the tunnel once to evade federal authorities.
Historian Peterson said there is no truth to that story, even though James’ uncle Drury was one of the founders of Paso Robles, and the bandit did visit him.
“He didn’t have to hide out here,” she said. “His uncle was one of the owners and the people did not know he was wanted.”
A mild biography of Dr. Robinson was included in the book “History of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties, California Vol. I, II.”
One of the authors was longtime Tribune proprietor Benjamin Brooks, who wrote the San Luis Obispo entries.
Dr. Robinson had six brothers and sisters and was from a four-generation Maryland family.
After getting his degree from the University of Georgetown, he entered the U.S. Navy about 1858. He served with Commodore Farragut in the Gulf Squadron during the Civil War and was a career Navy officer serving as medical examiner.
The biographical sketch described his beautiful home’s gardens and his habit of attending up to three meals a day at the El Paso Robles Hotel. It also confirmed his appreciation of the hot springs for his health. Robinson is described as “widely informed”, “cordial and entertaining.”
A San Francisco newspaper obituary was far more sensational.
Apparently Robinson disliked women and cats, among his quirks. He did like rats and rattlesnakes, however — for dinner.
The obituary and a photo from inside the tunnel will be the subject of next week’s column.