“Want to see that Capone Tunnel?” TJ asked me.
Weeks earlier, he had mentioned the tunnel in passing, but I hadn’t thought much of it since.
For some reason, many of those living in Northwest Indiana are infatuated with old school Mob figures. Half-baked rumors passed as easily as counterfeit bills, and you couldn’t pass through a town without eventually hearing that a mob boss once stayed there or bodies had been buried in a cornfield nearby.
Two things gave me pause in dismissing the tunnel though. One, sometimes the rumors are true: the 1986 discovery of the Spilotro brothers in a shallow Newton County grave proved that. There’s also Dillinger, but that’s been discussed ad nauseam.
Two, I also knew TJ pretty well. An affable, talkative guy and amateur (but extensive) Hobart historian, he possessed an uncanny recollection of dates and locations. Sometimes he seemed like a walking, talking archive. I knew that if he had something to show me, at the very least it would interesting.
We drove into rural Hobart, just north of Deep River County Park, rocketing down Ainsworth Road in a gas-powered golf cart. Hot and sunny, the wind felt nice, but those rural Hobart roads are narrow. I gripped the golf cart’s frame with white-knuckled hands.
We chugged up a hill past the River Pointe Country Club, a swanky club that had evolved with Hobart itself. It had started life as a farm, then a dinner club, then a full-fledged country club. Just across the street from one of the country club’s maintenance barns, TJ started to slow down. He craned his head up, staring at the dense wall of summer foliage on the roadside.
“It’s somewhere…here…” he said, slowing down. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been here…”
Then he stomped on the brake, yanking us to the shoulder. He snapped on the parking brake and hopped out.
“Come on,” he said, plunging into the undergrowth and disappearing from the road. That’s TJ. Once he gets a mission and some enthusiasm, he’s like as focused as laser.
I walked further down the road, checking for cars and looking for a break in the foliage. I was allergic to poison ivy and had worn shorts. When I saw a patch that seemed a little less blistery, I ran through.
The thick, untouched deciduous forests in rural Hobart strike visitors as both eerie and awe-inspiring. Only a few minutes from the consumer congestion of the Merrillville-Hobart shopping orgy sits this pristine forest, as still and quiet as a graveyard greenhouse.
The canopy of trees kept it in perpetual dusk, killing undergrowth and allowing a bed of old leaves and dirt. I saw TJ working his way into the woods ahead of me. He waved at me and pointed to the ground.
“Got it!” he said. His finger stabbed the air near his feet.
It was a flat, square hunk of concrete in the middle of the forest. Uninteresting, save that anything flat and square should not be in a natural forest. It stood at the edge of a steep ravine, which went sloped down for fifty feet before settling flat. An angle that steep (at least 45 degrees) could get dangerous quickly.
TJ stood on the flat square. “The county used to run maple syrup lines here, but it got too dangerous. It was stupid running up and down this hill for a few gallons of maple syrup. Fall right on your ass.” He reached to the side and picked up a dirty green hose a few feet long. “See. Old sap line.”
He tossed it back and then stomped on the flat square. “This is it, supposedly. Al Capone’s escape tunnel.”
I walked slowly toward the square, approaching it almost like a crime scene, because it felt that way.
“If I ever thought I’d find a body in these woods,” I said to TJ, “It would be right here. Place is creepy.”
And it was. Dim. Quiet. Creepy.
For some strange reason I was reminded of Ewoks.
The flat square was the roof of an eight foot cube of old cinder block. It jutted out of the ground like a decayed molar. Around it were a few pieces of roadside trash and rusted metal. Strangely enough, there was no graffiti.
Graffiti or not, someone had been at the cinder blocks, and not in a surgical way. The entire front of the structure had been opened with a sledgehammer, littering the surrounding ground with broken bits of block.
As I moved to the opening, the ground started sloping more dramatically. I gripped a nearby maple sapling and steadied my footing.Inside the dim structure, a rusted metal shell took up half the floor. The cinder block walls were still straight and strong, held together with age-darkened mortar. Narrow windows on both sides of the walls proved a little light.
The back wall was obviously newer, though, with the mortar still a bright white. Toward the bottom of the back wall yawned a jagged hole about two dinner plates wide.
TJ pointed at that. “That’s where someone tried to break through. I came out here and found a bunch of tools. A sledgehammer, crowbar, some chisels. I think they got tired out.”
I wasn’t surprised. Ask any trained fireman, cinder block is just about the hardest material to break through.
“What’d you do with the tools?” I asked.
TJ shrugged. “I kept ’em.”
A pile of loose, brown sand had collected below the open hole, spilling out. I shined my flashlight on it, then on the hole itself. Sand. I shined my flashlight along the wall, again amazed no one had bothered to paint graffiti or carve initials into anything.
Shreds of loose tar paper hung down from the wall and above us, mottled gray sheets were tacked into the ceiling only a few inches above our heads.
Although I knew what the gray sheets were, I poked them once, then wiped my finger on my shirt.
“Asbestos,” I said. “Old sheets of asbestos.”
TJ stared at it and backed away. So did I. We’re both part of the generation that learned to fear asbestos.
I stepped back out of the structure, looking down the slope. Steep, yes, but not impossible to get down, especially for anyone motivated. The ravine ran the full length of the road, going a mile in both directions.
We stayed out there another fifteen minutes, poking around, pointing at this and that, and lifting a few of the rusted scraps of metal. TJ found one interesting chunk of metal and tossed it on the flat, square roof.
An old emblem still retained enough of its chrome to shine in the dim light. “ONAN ELECTRIC PLANT” it said. I took a picture. I took a few pictures, wanting to snatch some details for research. And for this article.
When we left a few minutes later, I had a laundry list of questions rattling in my head, but I was also relieved to be back out in the bright light and civilizing view of a golf course. I like forests, but that one was a little too much like the Blair Witch Project.
I had one question: could that have been the exit of a tunnel? When TJ invited me out there, I had ready to dismiss that story out of hand. A born and bred skeptic, I knew 99% of local folk tales were more fiction than fact, but this one I wasn’t so ready to dismiss.
First, the structure’s placement.If it was a storm shelter or some kind of storage, placing it on the edge of that ravine would have been a clear mark of insanity. One false move and a body would tumble down, ass over elbows, for fifty feet.
But if someone were trying to escape…the slope would hide them from searching eyes, the deep, narrow cut of the ravine (and the substantial overgrowth) would provide plenty of cover. Escapees could pop out a mile away in either direction.
Second, the new wall.There was no question the back wall of cinder blocks was newer than the rest of the building. Cinder block construction is some of the toughest ever made. There would be no reason to replace an entire wall of it for any reason, and certainly you would never replace the wall buried in a hillside. Unless you were trying to block something up.
Third, the sand. That sand is not soil. It’s obviously some kind of fill, but why? Looking through the gaping hole, you could see the sandy fill went back feet, not just inches. If a contractor wanted to use it as a base for the cinder block walls, I could understand. The sand would leech away moisture from the cinder blocks, which were prone to dampness. But no contractor would use several feet of sand. Unless, of course, they were trying to fill something in. Like a tunnel.
After a few days of research, I concluded that I would never be able to discover a conclusive answer, I could only decide if it was likely or unlikely. After hours of reading and research, I decided that…yes, it is likely the remnants of an escape tunnel, probably built for Al Capone, but never used.
Here’s my reasoning…
From Mafia to Milking Cows
River Pointe Country Club, the golf course directly across the street from the structure, was once a sprawling 900-acre farm owned by Michael Carrozzo, a Chicago union boss and close associate of Al Capone. In the late 1930s, Carrozzo purchased several plots of land in what was then called Ainsworth and established a pastoral vacation home for his family, calling it Superior Farms.
Raising cows and horses and adopting the relaxed rural life didn’t come easily for Carrozzo though. He surrounded his home on the estate with six-foot tall chainlink fencing topped with barbed wire. That barbed wire remained for decades, long after his death. Hobart locals argued over Carrozzo hosting an authentic Mob presence on the farm.
Some talk about armed men patrolling the farm and convoys of black limos, while others insist they never saw anything but honest workers doing honest work on the grounds.
Carrozzo purchased and built Superior Farms as Capone served out his infamous jail sentence, first in Atlanta, then California (at Alcatraz). The two men were close, and there was a good chance “Scarface” might stay at Superior Farms for an extended period of time.
Amenities and creature comforts were not the only things Capone insisted on in his residences, even temporary ones. Quick and quiet escape routes from authorities and rival gangs also topped his list. If Capone even had the slightest chance of visiting Superior Farms, Carrozzo wouldn’t fail to install one.
Michael Carrozzo died in 1940 from a kidney infection, and Capone never did come to Superior Farms. Instead, the former Mafia boss traveled first to Baltimore to be treated for a steadily-advancing case of syphilis, which doctors knew was in its final, fatal stages. After leaving the hospital, Capone traveled to Palm Island in Florida, where he died in 1947.
The structure of the structure…
Cinder block construction might seem ordinary to us now, but in the 1930s, it was one of the newest and strongest construction materials, usually reserved for building foundations. Carrozzo could easily have afforded the manpower and money to build a small cinder block across the road from his farm.
The hunk of metal with “ONAN Electric Plant” on it also puzzled me, but that was the easiest piece of research. During and just prior to World War II, the Onan Electric Plant was one of the most popular portable generators in the world, with many used during the Allied invasion of Europe. Near the cinder block structure, I spotted a few pieces of metal pipe jutting from the ground and realized these must be conduit and the structure must have housed an Onan generator. That also explained the asbestos on the ceiling.
Did that offer a better explanation for the structure’s origin than as the exit of an escape tunnel? For a brief second, I thought it could…then I remembered the slope of the hillside. If, for some reason, you wanted to house a VERY expensive generator, would you do it three hundred yards from the house, on the side of a steep ravine? Not a chance.
But if you wanted an excuse for installing a cinder block building…then insisting it’s just housing for a generator seems as good a cover as any.
Someone will come along and shoot down my arguments and reasoning like ducks at a carnival. I am no expert, only a curious armchair academic. I happily invite scrutiny, as long as its backed up with reliable sources.
I anticipate a few readers might ask for the specific location of the cinder block structure. Well, I am not telling you. Nothing personal.
The cinder block structure is currently on land belonging to the Lake County Parks Department. They would not appreciate urban explorers climbing in and out of foliage on a busy road. Also, the slope of that ravine is daunting. More than daunting. It’s flat-out dangerous. I have some experience climbing up and down slopes like that, but those unused to hiking might find themselves slipping and sliding down that hillside.
Break a leg down there, my friends, and it will take medical personnel a long time to get to you.
Instead, take a trip to the Hobart Historical Society. They can tell the tale of Michael Carrozzo better than I can, and with fewer flowery adjectives.