Every city has urban legends, and our city is no different. These stories grow over time, whispered in hushed tones in the corridors of power, retold to generations of passengers by gregarious cab drivers, or a vaguely remembered by an aging bartender at one of the city’s many watering holes. They may have been based on real events, such as the legend of the lost treasure of Old City Hall, but as they are told and retold, they become mythic, and if they are famous enough and strange enough, often become part of city history. Here is an overview of some of the most well-known urban legends to haunt our city—none are true, but they reflect the fears and excitement of bygone times.
Secret Subway (1911)
In the early part of the twentieth century, the city made an effort to connect downtown to the growing outer neighborhoods by engineering a new subway system to accompany the north-south line already in existence. The tracks began at the Central Depot (which before its demolition in 1968 sat across Ludlow Plaza from Old City Hall) and were planned to stretch out to the suburbs east and west of town. After several years of fits and starts and partial completion, the project was finally halted due to budget constraints in 1919. Some of the completed but never used stations continued to exist, most famously at Elsinger and 10th street, which was by turns used as a prison and later to house zoo animals. Legends of the uncompleted system continued to grow, perhaps because the public was denied access and largely because of a story spread by local barber Alex McKenzie.
McKenzie claimed to have gained access to the station via the vast network of steam tunnels beneath Old City Hall. What he claimed to have seen there became this first urban legend—he said that the stations had not in fact been shut down, but were instead being used to transport the rich and powerful throughout the city in well-appointed private rail cars. He claimed to have seen Mayor Jonah Woolsey and other famous city figures enjoying the ride, sipping scotch in the handsomely paneled oak and teak subway car. Before he could observe more, McKenzie was spotted by security and chased back to the surface world. When confronted with the allegations, Woolsey called them “the whiskey-tainted hallucinations of a filthy Irishman.” But the story refused to go away, and even became a campaign issue, when socialist mayoral candidate Eugene Roberts challenged the mayor to prove that it did not exist by opening the stations to the public (this encounter became the basis for a famous editorial cartoon by well-known satirist Enri). Not even taking into account the inefficiency and enormous cost of operating a mass transit system for a small portion of the populations, this legend was also refuted by the daily sightings of the mayor being driven about the city in his private carriage (and a few years later, a horseless-buggy). Still, somehow the rumor persists, perhaps because the stations are still off limits to the public. A version of the legend dating from 1977 had famous reclusive industrialist Sydney B. Howe using the tunnels to travel between his many real-estate holdings, or to escape the city completely in the case of nuclear war (Strange Facts, September 1977).
Haunted Skyscraper (1927)
Buoyed by the anything goes spirit of the jazz age, local industrialist and timber magnate J.C. Greenley decided that he would make his mark on the city’s skyline by building the world’s second tallest building (after New York’s Woolworth). The design called for a 50-story office tower, One Greenley Place, which would dwarf the other city buildings, exceeding the next tallest by over twenty stories. However, before completion, Greenley was wiped out financially by the Crash of 1929. The construction crew had just completed the thirtieth floor, and it was from here that he took his own life, leaping to the street (and in the process, killing a pedestrian below). Seeing no demand for office space due to the economic doldrums of the time, the building was capped at thirty floors and turned into apartments.
All of this is true, but the grisly details of Greenley’s demise lead to an urban legend—that his ghost still haunts the building, and tragedy continues to stalk its inhabitants. While it is true that the building has seen more than it’s share of accidents, beginning with the three workmen who fell from faulty scaffolding just two weeks after Greenley’s plunge, and also including two fires (in 1936 and 1955 respectively) resulting in a combined loss of 57 lives, there is nothing to suggest a supernatural cause. The first fire was caused by a lightning strike and the second by sloppily installed wiring. Residents of the thirtieth floor penthouse occasionally complained about unexplained noises, and in the first forty years, more than 25 tenants vacated the residence. But this is most likely caused by the lack of insulation and lax building standards, due to the work being completed at great speed with almost no budget after the death of its namesake. The current resident, Roger Whitestone, grandson of Elias Whitestone and scion of the department store fortune has lived in the penthouse for over 15 years and has never encountered any poltergeists or things that go bump in the night. When asked about the myth of the haunted skyscraper, Whitestone said “it’s all a bunch of hooey… the problems with the building had to do with poor construction, not with ghosts and goblins.”
– M. Vermeulen