Beer and Cheese Cellars
of Early Days Uncovered
Sewer Work Revives Stories of Old Passages
Watertown Daily Times, 01 24 1948
Few autoists, stepping on the gas as they chug up the West Cady Street hill west of North Church Street, know that under them are several old tunnels and caverns which once were used to lager beer and age cheese. And few pedestrians who walk up that hill also are aware of it. But it’s true.
While many of the older residents of the city have been aware of the past of the existence of such caverns and subterranean passages, most of them have either forgotten about it or have dismissed it as something that is of no interest to anyone. Younger residents have heard stories of these cellars but have never known definitely whether or not they actually existed. But they do exist.
216 N Church (Church and Cady)
Their existence was again brought to light here the other day when workers for the Watertown Plumbing Co. had occasion to do some sewer work in the vicinity and had to climb down into one of the old passages. One entrance that remains today is at the corner of West Cady and North Church streets, near the residence of Mrs. L. H. Kusel. The plumbers got into it by means of a passage way that leads from an opening that is covered with a manhole. In one of the passages they found the remains of an old wooden “track” which was used to carry the cheeses and barrels of beer that were once stored in the long, dark cellars, the cheeses to age properly and the beer to lager to a rich, brown brew.
At one time there was an entrance into the tunnels from the Kusel basement, but this, members of the family state, has been blocked off and is closed, although a short passage remains, but it contains nothing and indicates little of the size and construction of the old tunnels.
Years ago, during the early days of brewing beer in Watertown, beer was always lagered underground in large tunnels. Many of these were quite elaborate in construction, being bricked out and giving the impression of deep cavernous cellars. Some of the tunnels had trap door entrances and at least one or two utilized a rope controlled elevator in which the beer was lowered and raised. Wooden rails, on which carts could be pushed and guided were constructed along some of the passages. At least one of the tunnels still contains a table and chairs.
According to George Sheppard, city street commissioner, one of the men here who is familiar with some of the old tunnels, the passageways are about 16 to 18 feet below street level. Just how many there are or were at one time is not definitely known, because there have been so many conflicting stories circulated here in years past regarding them and all of them are now shut and are no longer used. But the West Cady street hill area seems to have been at one time a favorite spot for the construction of the underground depositors.
Fuermann Brewery and Memorial Park Tunnels
More people here are familiar with the old beer cellars that are located under Memorial Park, which was once the site of the Fuermann brewery. After the brewery was destroyed and remained only a ruin and an eyesore the old cellars came into partial view and boys playing on the lot used them for hideouts. When the city acquired the property and the development of the park began one of the first tasks was to fill in the old passages. A part of the park area caused trouble for years. A lot of old refuse, tin cans, etc. had been used to fill in a portion of the place and over the years a section of it began to cave in. This caused a great deal of trouble for city and park board officials and the great memorial arch, which originally stood at the southwest entrance of the park, had to be repaired and replaced, as the settling ground caused it to crack and break. After repairs had been made several times and a portion of the original arch had been removed entirely the entire structure was torn down and rebuilt at the southeast entrance of the park where it now stands. That section of the park had never been used for cellars and consequently provided a better location for such a heavy structure as the arch.
Watertown had numerous breweries over the years, some of them long forgotten and without any present day records to keep alive their existence at one time in this community.
Fuermann’s Empire brewery seems to have been the first of any consequence here. It was established in 1848 and it grew and expended until in its heyday it turned out 11,000 barrels of beer a year. Some of this went to clients as far away as Chicago. The capital investment of the brewery was $100,000.
In 1852 Joseph Bursinger established what was known as the City Brewery and an old record here of the establishment says “it was started with a capital of $2,000 and three employees until its success compelled an increase of both.” This later became a major brewery here. It later was capitalized at $80,000. Its beer, an old document here states, “is said to be made of pure malt and hops and no drugs of any kind. Shipments are made throughout Wisconsin”.
Later there were other breweries here, the best known of which became the Hartig Company brewery which was the last to survive. It was the outgrowth of what had earlier been the Hartig and Mantz brewery. The Hartig brewery survived even the days of prohibition when it made near beer and installed a department for making ice cream and even root beer. Both these added products enjoyed a wide popularity for years. After prohibition, the brewery again turned out beer, but as a beer producer, after it changed hands, it began to lag and finally was closed and is no longer in operation. It should be pointed out that the Hartig family is no longer associated with the Hartig Co. and was not associated with it during its last years of operation.
The first beer brewed for Watertown’s beer drinkers, however, was made even prior to the first brewery here. An early day history of Watertown says:
“The manufacture of beer is one of the principal industries in Watertown. Besides supplying a large local custom, the demand for Watertown brands of this beverage is such as to make its manufacture as profitable as it is extensive. C. W. Ducasse brewed the first beer for the thirsty citizens of Watertown in a crude and diminutive establishment located about four miles north of the village. He made weekly trips to Watertown, with a few kegs in a cart drawn by a yoke of oxen. It is said the fluid was so dark you couldn’t see a frog in it. It is not disputed, however, that a great many persons were very fond of looking for one, well aware they never would find it.”
A video recording made of the tunnels just before they were sealed is available in DVD format through the Watertown Historical Society. It is of very poor quality but is the only known video documentation available to those having an interest.
A Visit to the Tunnels
Watertown Daily Times, 04 27 1991 and 05 11 1991
Almost anyone who has lived in Watertown for a few years has heard stories about the old tunnels in the central part of the city.
The tunnels were part of Watertown's early brewing industry and a fascinating topic of discussion for anyone who has heard about them.
Most of the tunnels were located near the old Hartig Brewery on the present site of Tom's United Foods and the Fuennann Brewery which was located on the present site of the Watertown Municipal Building.
There have even been rumors that some of those tunnels traveled west under the Rock River and up to homes on Water Street and other areas west of the river.
The old Hartig home is located at the northwest comer of Cady and Water streets and that gave some validity to the theory that the tunnels traveled under the Rock River. That way the brewery owners could travel from their home to the brewery without ever having to brave the cold winter weather.
There are a good number of people who say that the underground tunnels did exist, but we have been unable to find any reason to believe that to be true. We have found no documentation, and judging from the depth of the Rock River along Cady Street and the hill as Cady travels to the west, it seems improbable to us.
However, we would welcome any documentation from a reader that at one time the tunnels went under the Rock River.
For sure, in years past, there were quite a few tunnels coming from the two brewers and also on some land west of the Rock River.
Today, we know of only one set of tunnels still intact, and that's the one we'll talk about a bit in this column.
The old Kusel home on the southwest comer of Cady and Church streets has the only tunnels that we can confirm.
Several weeks ago we made our first visit to those tunnels in over two decades and it was an interesting experience to say the least.
We were with several city officials and a couple of history buffs who were there to help with some opinions on their history. Getting his first peak at the tunnels was Doug Behling, owner of the house.
We spent quite a bit of time trying to analyze the purpose of the tunnels, when they were built, method of construction, etc.
Access to the tunnels is gained from a locked manhole cover at the comer of Church and Cady streets. The tunnel then travels along the Cady Street right-of-way west about 180 feet.
The entrance area is about 10 feet wide. It appears there may at one time have been some type of staircase to get to the floor of the tunnel, but at this time, entrance is gained by a rope ladder from the surface at the manhole to the floor of the tunnels.
This area narrows down to a width of seven feet for the next 55 feet. At that point, there is an archway and beyond the arch the width of the tunnel is about 10 1/2 feet. Up to this point, the top of the rounded ceiling is about seven and a half feet high and after the arch, the height is about 10 1/2 feet. As we traveled west, the brick floor was flat, but the roadway above ground was going uphill.
The tunnel continues for a total distance of 181 feet from the beginning at Church and Cady streets. There is a side tunnel about 140 feet from the east entrance. That side tunnel is a large one as well. It's about seven and one-half feet wide and about 10 feet high as well.
At the south end of this tunnel is a vent which is about 22 feet below the surface of the grass. This tunnel travels in a north-south direction and is located between the garage and the old Kusel home.
This side tunnel has a large pile of ashes in it - almost half blocking it. We're not sure how the ashes could have gotten there, but we guess it's possible some type of stove was located at the south end of the tunnel where the air vent is and over the years the ashes were just piled up.
Or, it could have been the home owner who decided the tunnels no longer had a use and decided to dump ashes from the furnace at this location.
We have been told originally entrance to the tunnels was possible from the Kusel home. We have not been in the basement of the home, but we didn't see any telltale signs of a bricked up entrance to the home from the tunnel side. However, it could have been blocked up with great care so as to make it look original.
We have talked with several people who had entered the tunnels years ago from the Kusel home, so there must have been an entrance.
Along the ceiling of the tunnel there are about six ceiling vents, all but one of which have long been covered. Today there is grass, sidewalk or road above the tunnels with the exception of the one vent at the south end of the side tunnel.
There is also a bricked shut doorway at the very western edge of the tunnel which would indicate a second side tunnel to the south was either constructed and then closed or at least contemplated at one time.
The floors, walls and rounded ceilings of the tunnels are all brick with the exception of the western edge which is a vertical wall, of dirt.
On the floor of the tunnel is an old wooden track which was used to transport items from one end of the tunnel to another. We assume a small wagon traveled along the track.
Tunnel is probably an incorrect word to describe these brick structures. Probably a likely word would, be a cellar. They were constructed by removing the dirt from ground level down about 20-25 feet, bricking up the walls and then constructing forms over which the arches were built. After the mortar had set the trenches were backfilled and, presto, a tunnel was made!
THE TUNNEL STORY CONTINUES
Much of this column in recent weeks has been focused on the tunnels on Cady Street. And today, we'll continue with a bit more.
Bill Jannke III, one of Watertown's history buffs, wrote us a note with some new information and some of his thoughts on them as well. We'll share some of that here.
Bill says he has heard reports that some tunnels were located on or in the Cady Street area closer to the river than the documented one.
Maybe one of our readers in that area could offer some information. It's possible one or more homes in that area have blocked up entrances to tunnels in their basements. That would be a tip that tunnels did or still do exist in that area.
Bill also answered the question of who actually constructed the tunnels at Cady and Church streets. He said the answer was in one of C. Hugo Jacobi's columns which were originally published in the Watertown Weltburger in 1923. Those early reminiscences of Watertown were written in German and published that year. A year later they were translated into English and were published in this paper.
Watertown Daily Times, 08 26 1998
This was kind of a sad week for those of us in the community who are local history buffs. The old tunnels on Church and Cady streets have been filled with a concoction of cement, slurry and potash in an effort to prevent them from caving in and causing injuries and/or major property damage and the potential of lawsuits. It was inevitable that this would be the ultimate end to the tunnels. They couldn't go on forever, especially given the facts there is no use for them today, access is extremely difficult and maintenance would be a nightmare. So, with the rebuilding of Cady Street from Church to Montgomery Street this summer, it seemed appropriate that they be forever sealed at this time.
From the original German, Jannke said the rough translation would be "In 1858 Joseph Bursinger built an extra large aging cellar in the hill where Louis Kusel lives today. Many hundreds of barrels of beer were placed in these cellars to lager or age."
We have the original abstract for the Kusel property and it does show Bursinger purchased the house on Sept. 2, 1859 from one John Finn. Then on Nov. 25, 1859 the deed notes that Bursinger was given the authority to build the tunnels.
Here's basically what that agreement said. Bursinger will be allowed to build the east-west cellar as a passage to and from his other cellar (the north-south section). So apparently the first section constructed was the north-south and the east-west section came later.
Other requirements were that Bursinger had to construct a "flate" entrance door on the east end of the sidewalk, that the tunnel must be built in a "good and substantial manner" and in such a manner that sidewalk could later be constructed according to grade and that the entrance be at grade level.
Bursinger was also authorized to construct three windpipes equal distance apart to provide the cellar with fresh air and was required to be sure no water ran through the tunnels.
Bursinger was also bound to pay $500 in case there was a failure. Well, it's 133 years later and the tunnels are still intact. The construction must have been of high quality.
The abstract makes for interesting reading. The first entry is when the United States of America sold the land to James Rogan on Jan. 29, 1839, for a buck and a quarter an acre. Such a deal that was.
Bill, writing about Bursinger's tunnels, said, "It had always been my thought that Bursinger was the builder because once he bought out my great-great-grandfather Jacob Hoeffner's brewery in 1854 he set about improving the plant and implementing large-scale brewing techniques. The building of lagering cellars would have been a natural step."
Bill also said he has been told that at one time there were tunnels at the comer of East Water Street and Oconomowoc Avenue. He said that is possible because the Joseph Hussa Brewery stood at that location from 1851 to 1871. Maybe one of our readers would have some information on that possibility.
01 14 Watertown is one of the cities in southeastern Wisconsin which already have been examined by a representative from the Civil Defense organization as possible fallout shelters in case of nuclear attack. The survey is continuing. A representative of Civil Defense told the Times he was here to make a check and asked for information regarding the old underground passages on the city’s west side — in the North Church and West Cady Street district. He also made inquiries regarding the old underground brewery cellars in the Memorial Park area [former Fuermann Brewery] which were used many years ago in the lagering of beer. He was told, however, that those cellars had been filled in when the park was developed but he said he would seek a check on them, if possible.
History of Watertown, Wisconsin