Maheras Mystery Tunnel

November, 2011.

Once for work I was sent to the private security-gated section of Grayhaven Island. The part where you can only reach it by dialing a number of the resident who you are trying to visit into the kiosk, and they have to buzz you in for the gate to open. While I was there I noticed what looked to be ruins of old moorings hidden in woods on the other side of the canal, so I made a mental note to check that out at some point when the leaves had fallen.

I also neglected to take a photo of the front of the former "Purple Gang house" there at 450 Keelson, so a few months later I decided that if I went to Maheras-Gentry Park on the other side of the canal from Grayhaven Island, and went into the woods there, I might be able to get a decent shot of the rear of the house.


As you can see there is a boat-well that leads right up into the house on this private island, which I'm sure came in pretty handy during Prohibition. The mansion was rumored to be designed by renowned theater architect C. Howard Crane in 1929, though I doubt that is correct. According to a website, this was a "haunted mansion with a basement that was formerly used as a sex dungeon," as featured on a December 2009 episode of the TV show Paranormal State. The link also however claims the mansion was built in 1925 by the Dossin family (who to my knowledge were not affiliated with the Purple Gang). A swingers club did operate in the house in recent years, but I don't know about a "sex dungeon."

Today the house is a rentable event space questionably called "Pirate's Cove," with a website that disagrees slightly, saying the house was built by Walter Sheetz, president of R.C. Mahon Steel Co. and sold almost immediately to Walter Dossin. According to another website, Ernest Dossin started Dossin's Food Products in 1898, out of a horse drawn cart. He expanded through the years to include other food products, and by the 1930s Dossin's Food received the bottling and distribution franchise from Pepsi-Cola for Michigan and northern Ohio. By the 1940s brothers Walter, Roy and Russell Dossin owned and raced four Gold Cup class speedboats to boost advertising for their business. All this would explain why the speedboat seen on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle is called the Miss Pepsi. Walter Dossin and his family were deeply interested in Great Lakes Maritime History and donated the funds to create what is now the museum that bears their name.

According to the description on the Pirate's Cove facebook, the Dossin house was sold again in 1942 to Hans Aichler, a German immigrant who lived there until 1996 "and supposedly still haunts the premises." So there doesn't seem to have really been any Purple Gang history behind 450 Keelson, I think that was just something whipped up by a real estate website in order to help the house sell. Perhaps they should have went with "haunted by an ex-Nazi," but that's probably not as desirable a selling point as "used by Jewish mobsters."

One of the theories as to why the house is allegedly haunted relates to the fact that the Fox Creek Massacre occurred near here in 1712, though the Fox Creek sits at least 12 blocks east of Gray Haven. After the Fox tribe attacked Fort Pontchartrain in order to secure a British alliance, the French defenders pursued the Fox all the way to what is now Grosse Pointe, where the battle took place.

So anyway I got my photos of the Dossin house, but while I was there poking around in those woods I found some other very interesting things. There had clearly been other houses here on this side of the canal at one time, as illustrated by the presence of this ruined boat slip:


So naturally I took some more time and began poking around in the vicinity to see if I could uncover any other ruins or clues as to what used to be here.


Grayhaven Island, which was part of the Gray Haven real estate development was named after one of Henry Ford's lieutenants, engineer Edward Gray. Gray is credited with helping Albert Kahn design the world-famous Highland Park Model-T Plant to accommodate a moving assembly-line, according to Henry Ford's needs and specifications.

According to a user on Flickr who claimed his grandfather worked for Gar Wood, Ed Gray left Ford to go into real estate and conceived the Gray Haven idea in the late 1920s. By 1931, Gray "had attracted the attention" of three prominent Detroiters who all built large homes in Ed Gray's development: Lawrence Fisher, of Fisher Body fame; William Koerber, a Prohibition era brewer; and Gar Wood, whose speed boats not only won races but made the rum-runners happy." But as usual the Great Depression intervened, putting the grand Gray Haven vision on indefinite hold.

Eight other smaller homes were built on the island, and on the mainland along the Port Lagoon. "But Gray's dream did not come to fruition during his lifetime," since he died in 1939 "his widow had to let the remaining vacant lots revert to the city for nonpayment of taxes."


Someone's landing:


This stone wall was intriguing:


Another slip:




A wrecked...Escort wagon?


Anyway, a quick historical note on the park itself; it was originally named Algonquin Park in 1928, then renamed after Peter Maheras, one of the first Detroiters to die in combat in WWII. The "Gentry" part of the name was added in 2002, after an African-American resident who lived nearby since the 1950s and championed this neighborhood and its residents' right to have a decent park and rec center in their neighborhood, at a time when the city was known for allocating recreation funds mostly to white neighborhoods. Bronson Gentry was a janitor by trade, but also became a national horseshoe-pitching champion.

In the 1990s when city government was looking to turn this part of the riverfront into new developments catering to affluence in an effort to lure white residents back the city, Bronson Gentry again fought to preserve the park he had fought for in the '50s. Mr. Gentry died in 2003, one year after the park was named after him.


Apparently at some point the place found a secondary use as a place to dump cars.


Nearby, obscured in the tangle of brush were two fading old wooden fenceposts, with wire fencing strung between them:


More wall foundations nearby:


It looked as if there had once been a whole neighborhood here--a street lined with houses--but they had all apparently been torn down simultaneously at some point, and the street completely covered by leaves and soil. 

The north-south street that would have come through here was Kitchener Street, but the end of it seemed to have been blocked off and abandoned when this land near the waterfront became Maheras-Gentry Park?


Another boat landing:


I didn't own a boat yet, but this area seemed like a good place to investigate while afloat. Greyhaven Island and the Dossin house again:


This slip came in rather far:


An old staircase hidden under the fallen leaves of many autumns lay nearby:




I wonder if it too used to have a house built over top of it...


If that was the case, it was probably a long time ago judging by the thickness of some of these trees:


Steep staircase:


Yet another fancy concrete seawall:


And another slip...






As I started making my way back to the trail leading out of the woods, a 1980s-vintage Buick Riviera appeared, rusting into the ground:


I used to drive one of these beasts when I was in college, which I had nicknamed the Bebop. Mechanically it was a piece of shit, but the interior and the ride quality were superb...it was like riding around in a casino cruise ship.


This ocean liner still had its 307ci Oldsmobile V8 engine intact, though the hood had been ripped open like a sardine tin, while the roof had been crushed-in like a tree might have fallen on it at some point.

A broken-off Edison pole lay on the ground nearby:


More curious was the presence of this odd hole in the ground:


A minute later, I noticed something even stranger...the hole lined up with a whole series of other collapsed sections of the ground, which seemed to imply the presence of...a tunnel?


Being a westsider, my knowledge of the history of this part of town is fairly limited, so I can only guess as to what kind of tunnel might be here. With building excitement, I quickly followed this trench along the forest floor to see if there was anywhere with a big enough hole for me to look inside.

It wasn't long before I found an opening big enough to squeeze into.


Now this is a trip...


This section only ran about 30 feet before another cave-in blocked the way:


However another opening presented itself further up:


It appeared to continue running north up into the neighborhood, perfectly in line with the foot of Kitchener Street. This section of tunnel also seemed to run about at least 30 feet, but I couldn't see the end of it, so I went in.

Looking back toward the entrance:


I needed to light it up with a flash to see what I was looking at.


Naturally I was all too eager to ascribe this tunnel's existence to some Purple Gang-type Prohibition Era smugglery, since it seemed to lead down to the Detroit River. But clearly I would need to do more research to see what used to be here on this piece of land. The tunnel's poured concrete construction looked like it could plausibly have been poured as early as the 1920s, but a more mid-century date seemed more likely. It didn't seem quite weathered enough to be that old.

The end of the tunnel looked like it made a 90-degree turn to the right, but it also looked like it had once continued straight ahead but had been walled-off or oddly patched at some point:


At any rate I could go no further, so I turned back.

There did not seem to be any brackets or anything that I noticed that would suggest that this was a steam or utility tunnel; this seemed to be a pedestrian tunnel. But for what purpose? There was a small pipe on the floor:


Clearly this called for more research. As soon as I got home, I got on Google Earth and looked at the area from above to see if any outlines might present themselves, but the tree cover was just too thick:

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But a look at HistoricAerials.com provides us with imagery from 1973, which shows Kitchener Street definitely extending down past where it dead-ends today, and there are indeed what look like houses along it:

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Very fascinating.

I decided that since the internet was of little help, a look at Sanborn Maps might be a good idea since they usually show any existing tunnels, so I headed to the Detroit Public Library. The Sanborn Map for Detroit, Vol. 11, 1916, Sheet 24 shows nothing; also, Kitchener was named Tennyson Street at that time.

The Sanborn Map for Detroit, Vol. 11, 1929, Sheet 93 shows a street here named "Port Drive" (not Kitchener), going all the way to the riverfront with a cul-de-sac at the south end, shown with subdivided lots all along its east side, but nothing along the west side of the street. 

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There are five lots with homes built on them, plus one home built on the cul-de-sac, across from what appears to be the former Gar Wood Mansion. The lots appear to have been part of the Gray Haven development. No tunnel is shown however, but there is a canal shown extending up into what is now Maheras-Gentry Park. Unfortunately, 1916 and 1929 were the only maps available. 

I also did more searching online. A self-proclaimed Gray Haven historian, posting on the DetroitYes forum under the name Sumas, asserts that Gray Haven began long before Prohibition, in 1913. However, the c.1916 Sanborn map of the area shows there to be no development in that area yet (though the process of dredging and filling could have been underway). Furthermore, Ed Gray was most likely still very busy as an engineer for Ford Motor Co. at that time. Sumas also states that there were no speakeasies there, and no history of rum-running, "although the well to do enjoyed access to the river, to provide for their personal cellars."

William Koerber built his house at the end of Port Drive in 1925, facing the Detroit River across the canal from Gar Wood's mansion on Grayhaven Island. According to the "Pirate's Cove" website, the Koerber family came from Ionia, Michigan, where they founded the Michigan Brewing Company in 1912. The Koerber family closed their Ionia brewery during Prohibition and instead used their trucks to ship what they called "near-beer" from Toledo in order to stay in business, at which time they presumably took up residence here in Detroit. That's where the Purple Gang connection seems to come in; allegedly, according to this version of the story, the Purples saw them as competition, so the Koerbers closed up shop in 1923.

A person claiming to be a descendant of the Koerbers said that the house had an indoor boat well like the Fisher Mansion, and his grandmother told him stories of the family brewery and how there was "a false wall inside the boat house" that was used to hide booze smuggled from Canada. "I walked through the home when it was still standing back in '80-'81 and sure enough the false wall and hidden room was still there." The point where the Koerber mansion used to stand has been completely reconstructed, and no trace of the Gray Haven past remains there today: http://goo.gl/maps/GeDNL

Online I unexpectedly dug up the text of an old brochure by the Government Printing Office from 1985, Know Your Riverfront Parks, A Historical and Informational Brochure. It said that at the conclusion of World War II, temporary housing for returning veterans was built on Maheras Park, and remained there until the early 1950s. Additionally, from 1953 to 1969, Maheras was used as a Nike Missile site. Very interesting; most people know about the Nike site on Belle Isle, but this was a new one on me. "Today, Maheras has no remaining military vestiges," it says.

Nonetheless I decided to make another trip to Maheras-Gentry to take a second look, and explore the southern end of the woods where I didn't go on my first visit. I didn't really fund much except more dumped cars:


Late-1970s Cadillac:


Some other modern piece of crap:


As far as I could tell, no traces of any more tunnel could be seen down this way, but perhaps it just hasn't collapsed yet? I didn't go check on the stuff I saw last time in the northern end, because the mosquitoes were just going batshit crazy on me.

I did happen to see this odd barren concrete open area in the trees:


According to a website that specializes in the history of the Nike-Hercules missile system, the installation here at Maheras was classified as D-26 IFC Area, and included several structures. The "IFC" stands for Integrated Fire Control, which means that this (along with nearby D-23 IFC at Alfred Brush Ford Park) was the control site for the missile batteries that were located on the eastern tip of Belle Isle, just across the river.

It is not clear on the blueprints or aerial photos provided that there was a tunnel however, but it also looks like most of the military buildings were down closer to the river anyway.


References:
Sanborn Map, Detroit Vol. 11, 1916, Sheet 24
Sanborn Map, Detroit Vol. 11, 1929, Sheet 93