Hidden Tunnels and Safety Coffins

Ebenezer Chapel

In the first part of our Ferris Bueller Day outing, Dwight Moffitt, Jami Sprankle, and I visited the Camp Asylum archeology dig on the State Hospital grounds on Bull Street. However, our day of adventure was not over.

Just about any city has rumors of underground passageways. Larger cities have the obvious subway lines, but there are other systems of tunnels to support both utilitarian and other more nefarious purposes. Columbia is no different. There are rumored to be three distinct tunnel systems in Columbia. There are supposed to be a set of tunnels near the Five Points area, a set of tunnels from the Statehouse down Main Street and to the Congaree River, and a well-documented set of ventilation and utilitarian tunnels under the USC campus. For our second adventure of the day we sought out the entrance to one of these tunnels.

Our target was Ebenezer Lutheran Church, which supposedly has an entrance to the tunnel system under the main sanctuary. This time we had an “in.” Jami served as Director of Christian Education at the church until last summer, and had made contact with the church to see if we could get in to explore.

The church was just a couple of blocks over from the State Hospital, so we drove on over and met with the church secretary. We were introduced to the church sexton, Wesley, who agreed to be our tour guide for the day.

Our first stop was the basement. We headed down through a series of narrow corridors that themselves could pass for spooky tunnels.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church Basement

Wesley showed us a small access door that allowed passage to the crawl space underneath the main sanctuary, but that wasn’t really what we were after.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church Basement-001

Further on down, around the corner from the boiler, was a level beneath the access door. Behind all the heating system for the church was the supposed hidden tunnel.

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Unfortunately, access to the tunnel was now covered by a metal panel. There was a small access plate attached with screws. We had brought flashlights with the intent to explore as far as we could. However, it looked like it was going to be a pain to remove the panel, even with Wesley’s help, and none of us really wanted to squeeze through. Alas, it looked like we would not be doing any tunnel exploration today.

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As long as we were there, Jami and Wesley took us on a tour of the rest of the church. We came back upstairs and climbed up to the main sanctuary.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church
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Back in the 1990s I gave a concert here with the Heritage Chamber Singers, but I don’t remember much about that concert, or even what we sang. On this visit, the church was set up for what appeared to be another concert. As it turns out, the choir would be doing the Bach cantata “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star” for Sunday morning.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church-004

Jami and Dwight wanted me to fire up the pipe organ. I declined, but did take photos of the console, pipes, and other mechanisms.

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From the sanctuary we stepped out into the courtyard. I paused to take a couple of photos of the main church and the magnificent live oak in the courtyard.

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On the other side of the courtyard is the chapel. This was the original sanctuary for the church. The church itself was founded in 1830, and was burned by Sherman’s troops in the Civil War. The chapel was the structure rebuilt in 1870 after the loss of the original church. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The main sanctuary was built in 1930, when the congregation outgrew the original building.

Wesley opened up the chapel for us, which was nearly as big as many churches I’ve visited. It was in excellent condition, with organ and choir in the rear, opposite the pulpit.

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Wesley opened the organ, and this time I did play. My organ-playing skills are rusty, but I attempted to play several hymn tunes and bits of Bach I had memorized.

Back outside we took a few minutes to explore the small cemetery. I didn’t see any signature stones, but there were some excellent examples of funerary art. Also notable, naturalist Rudy Mancke’s family as a plot in the cemetery.

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Wesley pointed out one of the most unusual features of the cemetery. The headstone itself was rather plain, but sticking out of the ground was an iron rod with a bent tear-drop shaped loop on top. Wesley said that this was an example of a “safety coffin.”

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In the 1800s there are recorded cases where people that were in comas, or otherwise mistaken as dead were actually buried alive. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, was prevalent, and some enterprising individuals came up with various schemes for making sure there was a way out, should that happen. One such method was to have a cord running down into the casket and attached to the supposedly deceased’s hand. The other end of the cord was pulled up through the loop on the metal stake and attached to the bell. Should the unfortunate person stir, the bell would ring.

Now I’ve got something else to look for where we go out on our cemetery rambles.

The last stop was the church archives. The room was cramped, so I let Dwight and Jami explore with Wesley, while I stayed outside and admired the church’s wonderful display of antique hymnals. I was quite jealous. There was an old German hymnal, and some that were hand-lettered.

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We gave Wesley our sincere thanks for a marvelous tour. Not only does he keep the facility in marvelous shape, but he has a keen interest in both history and music. He turned out to be a fascinating guy, and an excellent guide.

Back to the tunnels under Ebenezer, I’m not sure what to make of them, but I’m somewhat skeptical. Since the main church was built in 1930, it’s doubtful they were part of any Civil War escape route, as some have surmised about other tunnels in Columbia. They may have tied into something more utilitarian, if they actually exist. I wish we could have explored further. Maybe someday…

As far as Ferris Bueller is concerned, though, we were not going to have as full a day as Mathew Broderick’s character. We only had time to enjoy a nice lunch together before I had to get Dwight back to pick up his son from school, and Jami back to pick up her son from school. I guess “Ferris Bueller Days” work best when you’re in high school, rather than in your 50’s. But, then again, Matthew Broderick is now in his 50s.

Even so, we have a list of other places we want to explore in Columbia. Even with Jami’s new job, I hope she will be able to join Dwight and me on more explorations.

Here’s a slide show of all of the photos that were taken on our outing, including those from Camp Asylum…

…and once again here is my link to information about these locations.

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Comments (4)

  1. Ken Cothran

    That’s the church where I went for the reading session back in January.

    I wondered, regarding the tunnel question … the chapel didn’t have a basement? Or there wasn’t an older building on the site of the current sanctuary that might have yielded a basement and connection? Would have been fun to explore the church.

    1. Tom (Post author)

      Good points, Ken. I don’t know the original footprint of the first building, so the tunnel might have been there in Civil War times. I also didn’t ask about a basement for the chapel.

  2. Alan

    One of your all-time best titles! What a great day y’all had!

    1. Tom (Post author)

      We kept saying how we wished you were with us, Alan. I guess to truly have been a Ferris Bueler Day, at least one of us should have skipped school.


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