The Downtown Underground Tour
After reading the disheartening reports from the August 2008 feasibility study of Underground Eureka, it seemed there was little hope of the city starting an official tour of the Underground. However, the Eureka Springs Downtown Network took the suggested "Underground Walking Trail" idea to heart, and in March 2010 announced the opening of a new walking tour - The Eureka Springs Downtown Underground Tour.
Since I've been following this idea for quite a while, I jumped at the chance to be in one of the first groups to take the tour. I assumed that, being a fairly new project, there would be a few quirks and the script might be a bit disjointed, but I couldn't pass up the free admission for residents of Western Carroll County. At that price, there was nothing to lose!
The tour starts out at a makeshift kiosk in Basin Park, where several grainy laminated historic photos of town were on display. Not exactly the best first impression, but the city isn't well known for its marketing savvy, and you can't always judge a book by its cover. After all, this is an "underground" tour - a dirty DIY approach would almost seem befitting. Our guide Ralph was fairly knowledgable, albeit a bit loose with certain common exaggerations of underground lore (Underground City?). I understand this sensational approach to common "underground" and mystery tours, but if you're local you may have to occasionally fight back the urge to argue with him over the accuracy of his script. He was really good with our kids, who are still learning the concept of not interrupting adults when they speak.
The first stop (after a brief trek up the stairs in Basin Park) is the mouth of the spring cave where Basin Spring originated. Ralph pointed out the historic marker and offered a primer on the founding of the town around this, the original Indian healing spring, and then we moved across the street to the elevated walkway in front of the Basin Spring Bath House. We stood for a moment, the traffic of Main Street passing under our feet, as he touched on a few of the popular local legends involving bandits, the mob, and the infamous James Gang. From there, the tour descended to street level, where he explained the historic plaque for "Mud" Street, and subtly pointed out some phallic-shaped architectural details as evidence of Main Street's role as a former red light district.
Just as we were beginning to wonder when the tour would leave the sidewalks and public plaques behind, in search of more "restricted" zones, he took us into the Auditorium, where we traipsed across the same stage once visited by music legends such as Willie Nelson, B.B. King and some of the last of the original Delta blues men like David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Then we headed to the basement (insert spooky organ music here).
In the basement performance level of the Auditorium, or "The Gem" as it is known locally, Ralph told of his years working at The Aud, of its local "barefoot dances" in the basement, and he even managed to sneak in a ghost story. I spent some time looking for signs of the underground creek tunnel that we've explored beneath that room, but nothing looked familiar. On our way out, he showed us the small locked door near the entrance to The Gem that leads to the underground level below. That's as close as you get to the Leatherwood Creek Tunnel, though.
Leaving the Aud, we headed North to the Ice Cream / Soda Shop. They have a grate in the sidewalk (which I've spoken of before) that provides a rare glimpse at an old building facade beneath the sidewalk - left over from before the raising of Main / Mud Street. Walking around the back of this building, Ralph then took us into the basement where we could see the grate and sublevel facade from below the sidewalk.
Also in this basement room were a dozen metal chairs, stacks of boxes, some pamphlets and posters describing the Underground and Karst features of the region, and a screen for a slideshow. Ralph allowed us to snap a few shots of the area below the Main Street sidewalk before the slideshow began. The slideshow photos looked to be the same ones taken for the feasability study of 2008. The slide projector seemed to be having trouble keeping them on-screen. I also took a few photos at the rear of the basement, in an area beneath the edge of First Street. (This would seem to suggest that First Street may also have been raised in the past!)
Overall, I'm glad I took the tour. It was cool to see the Auditorium and Gem with nobody around, and getting access to the basement level of the Soda Shop was probably the highlight for me. The tour guide didn't really tell me much that I didn't already know about the history of Eureka Springs, but then I'm a pretty hardcore local historian who has read every book I could get my hands on. I have no doubt that visitors would find their knowledge of the area greatly improved after taking the tour, but I can't say how they would feel about the $12 ticket price. It seems rather expensive to me, but then I'm something of a pennypinching tightwad. The basement slideshow presentation in particular feels very low budget and anti-climactic. The guide elusively speaks of the "mystery" of the underground a number of times, but never really explains much of what we do know about the underground. The tour is relatively new, and I'm sure there are some details that are still being ironed out (i.e. the slideshow) so hopefully it will improve over time, bringing more value and behind-the-scenes access as it becomes more established.
Keep in mind that this is a historical walking tour, not an underground on-your-knees exploring adventure. Aside from the steps in Basin Park and a few flights of typically treacherous Eurekan stairs, the tour is quite accessible to people of just about any age - from the elderly to my five-year-old. From an "underground" perspective, you're not really seeing that much - just the Gem and the basement facade of one of the buildings on Main Street. In that respect, the name of the tour is a bit misleading. Anyone expecting an extensive "underground tour" similar to those offered in cities like Portland or Seattle (whose ticket prices are comparable but feature much more "underground" access) may be disappointed.
All that being said, if you know little of the history of Eureka Springs and would like a decent primer from a very colorful and genial local guide, this tour is unique and fits the bill. However, you can leave your helmet and headlamp in the car.
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Photos copyright © UndergroundEureka.com
Sidewalk Grate As Seen from Underneath
View From Beneath The Sidewalk
Basement Slide Show
Sublevel Facade With Windows and Entrance
Another Basement Facade - Missing Windows
Old Ladder Leading Up to First Street