I cautiously baby-step down the icy ramp leading to Omaha’s last remaining “subway.”
This is 1930s-speak for Dundee’s pedestrian tunnel, the only one left in the city’s neighborhoods. There still exists a warren of underground passageways downtown. But in the Roosevelt-era definition of such a “subway” — tunnels under busy streets with aboveground entrances that provide the proverbial lights-at-the-end-of — well, this one at 51st and Dodge is it.
Unless you’re a south-of-Dodge kid who attends north-of-Dodge Dundee Elementary, or a grown-up who once rode her banana-seat, Brady Bunch-era bicycle under Dodge, or a neighbor who doesn’t want to take her life in her hands crossing that five-lane monster that is Dodge, then you may be quite unaware a tunnel exists there.
Dave Schinzel wants to change that. He has designed signs that say “Dodge Street Subway” that would go on the light posts on the northwest and southwest corners of 51st and Dodge. He is also hoping to raise $30,000 for improvements that would provide more energy-efficient and brighter lighting, a colorful mural designed by children, and concrete work to patch and smooth a tunnel that has stood for 80 years and sits on the National Register of Historic Places.
The longtime Dundee resident has been pitching his proposal to area businesses, neighbors and institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Dundee Elementary, both of which would collaborate on the mural. He has raised some of the funds already and is counting on just $1,000 in public money — a federal grant funneled through the city. City Engineer Todd Pfitzer said he could see no objections.
Dave’s goal is twofold. First, he wants to beautify and enliven the tunnel, built during a larger federal public works project that once employed 2,000 Omahans during the Great Depression.
Second, he wants to let people know that it exists.
Crime and time have closed other city tunnels — like the ones at 39th and Cuming, 22nd and Dodge, and a notorious one spanning the Northwest Radial near 52nd Street.
That long Northwest Radial tunnel was a draw for criminal activity.
“The principal at Benson High School begged us to take (it) out,” Pfitzer said. “We were replacing lights constantly. The good kids would cross on the street level to avoid the tunnel. It had all kinds of problems.”
Tunnels in general, Pfitzer said, long ago fell out of vogue. They are expensive to build, difficult to maintain and a nightmare when it rains. An old World-Herald photo shows a boy ankle-deep in water inside the 39th and Cuming tunnel. A tunnel connecting a downtown parking garage with Union Pacific’s headquarters has been wet, he said, “from day one.”
But for some reason, the Dundee tunnel has been fine. There have been no complaints about crime, there’s been little vandalism and it’s sturdy.
Perhaps, I suggested, it’s because it’s rather invisible. By federal rule, when the tunnel was built, it had to fit into its environs. Drive down Dodge and you’ll easily miss the entrances, fronted with natural stone, that look like retaining walls.
“I’m shocked how many people don’t even know it’s here,” Dave said.
The Dundee subway is cleaner than you’d expect. Every so often the city replaces fluorescent lights and paints over graffiti. During a sidewalk repair project last year, a worker apparently had no idea that there was a tunnel underneath his jackhammer. The rattling shook loose a small piece of tunnel ceiling, exposing rusted rebar.
But that’s more a minor eyesore than a structural vulnerability. Like many things built 80 years ago, the tunnel was seemingly made to last. It’s so sturdy, you have to strain to hear the cars overhead. A previous drainage problem has been fixed, but the Dundee “subway” shares the dank, sour scent of real subway tunnels elsewhere.
“There’s nothing I can do about the smell,” grimaced Dave.
We saved most of our tunnel talk for the warm confines of nearby Goldberg’s, where Dave spread old news clippings and a federal report onto a restaurant table.
In 1933, under the Public Works Administration, men worked around the clock in four shifts building this and another tunnel, at 33rd and Dodge. Dodge Street was then being widened to its current five lanes in Dundee. The crews shut down the city’s main thoroughfare in 1933 and completed both tunnels in 1934. Workers recycled ripped-out curbstone to use for the tunnel entrances.
The Dundee tunnel was built with Dundee schoolchildren in mind. Today, about 100 of the elementary school’s children live south of Dodge, within a mile of the school. Dave’s daughter Catrina is one of those kids. The fourth-grader walks with her parents when the weather and their schedules cooperate. Dave is a legislative aide for State Sen. Sara Howard. His wife, Mibby, is a Millard schoolteacher.
The tunnel’s value, Dave says, is immeasurable, considering the alternative: crossing busy Dodge Street.
As he walked to Goldberg’s on the north side of 50th and Dodge, Dave saw two cars run red lights.
Dave wants to launch the project in the spring and have the mural completed sometime next fall.
You can read more about his effort at www.dundee-memorialpark.org.
Or you can take the subway yourself.