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Hidden Tosa: See What Lurks Beneath the City Streets

Once a thoroughfare, tunnel now sees seldom visitors

July 9, 2014

If you had stood in the underground tunnel between Wauwatosa East High School and Lincoln Elementary in 1934, you might have been mowed over by high schoolers scrambling to beat the bell to class. Patrollers on each end tried to slow them down as they dashed between East and an older high school building where Lincoln now stands, according to alumnus Ray Py's book, "Around the Tower."

Now, all that's left to observe is a few maintenance supplies and a sump pump. As traffic whizzes overhead on Wauwatosa Avenue, the tunnel is motionless, save the occasional stream of rainwater and, in the winter, the movement of heat through a pipe from East to Lincoln.

The tunnel was sealed off at the Lincoln end in 1957. With Lincoln serving the primary grades, students no longer needed to go between the schools throughout the day. Now off limits for students, the tunnel lives mostly in their imaginations.

"The tunnel has an intrigue for kids," said East Principal Nick Hughes. "We do a pretty good job of securing it, so access is difficult."

But, much like the also forbidden third floor of the school, the tunnel seems to hold enough allure that students have found their ways into it and left their names behind in marker, signed with class numbers through 2015. The words "end of the road" were added on the wall to Lincoln, as well as the phrase "smoke dope."

Others know the tunnel only as a legend. When Py asked a former East principal, Bill Stroud, about the tunnel, Stroud said he had never seen the tunnel and didn't know how to get to it, according to Py's book.

Connected to the basement of the school just under its entrance on Wauwatosa Avenue near Milwaukee Avenue, the tunnel is one of many relics growing old below the two main floors where classes go on. In the basement, there's a "fallout shelter" sign, piles of extra tile from when the building was constructed and decades of trophies packed in cardboard boxes. Most useful are the copious supplies of district items, from toilet paper holders to science curricula. 

"We have more nonpublic space then a lot of districts," said Tom Kulczewski, manager of buildings and grounds for the district. "But it does come in handy."

But as the tunnel is useless even for storage, with its slanted floor and sporadic flooding, it lives on mostly in legend and memories, like one recorded in Py's book:

"On Friday nights, it was mostly dark and mysterious," Py wrote. "Girls who needed to use the tunnel to go from the Raider Room to the dance in the old gym, would find a strong brave Tosa male to make the trip through the tunnel with. Thinking he had been swept up in a lucky date for the dance, the male escort would bravely endure the deed, only to become lost, confused and alone once the journey was complete and the young lady had found other companionship."

Do you have an idea for our next "Hidden Tosa" feature? Email rlinnane@jrn.com.

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