Oct 15, 2015
WCPO originally published this story in 2015 and has brought it back as part of our special coverage of local legends leading up to Halloween. For more real-life stories of the "paranormal," go to wcpo.com/haunted.
CINCINNATI — Dunham Recreation Facility has a secret.
Beneath the ball field, classrooms and auditorium is a hidden tunnel system locked away from the public. For decades, this underground passage was used to transport the dead.
The 115-acre recreation center in Westwood, known for its community programs for children, teens and seniors, was once home to the country’s first municipal tuberculosis hospital. Between 1897 and 1973, Dunham Hospital was a place where thousands came to die from an incurable disease.
And if you ask the staff working there today, the dead haven’t left.
“Everyone here says they’ve seen ghosts,” Dunham employee Bridgette Hartung said. “We’ll be cleaning in the middle of the night and hear a noise. Or out of the corner of your eye, there’s a flash of light.”
Hartung, who has worked at the facility off Guerley Road since 1987, isn’t the only one telling ghost stories. Some staff members say they carry pocketknives to protect themselves, while others swear they won’t stay in their offices alone after dark.
It’s common to hear footsteps lurking behind you or a door slam shut, the staff claims. If they’re asked to step inside the underground tunnel, most employees will repeat a similar mantra: “Hell no.”
“A lot of dead people have been through those tunnels,” Hartung said. “Thousands, maybe thousands upon thousands. It’s definitely haunted.”
Tuberculosis — known as the “great white plague” — killed more Americans each year during the 19th century than cancer or heart disease.
At its peak, Dunham Hospital had 14 buildings, nearly 600 patients, 16 doctors, 150 nurses, 12 technicians and 250 other employees.
Because most patients waited until their tuberculosis symptoms were advanced before seeking treatment, many saw Dunham as a place to die rather than be cured.
“Once you came to Dunham Hospital, you didn’t leave,” former recreation center employee Kenny Riddell said.
Riddell, 35, said he became “consumed” with the history of Dunham while employed as a mechanic there. He spent six years uncovering blueprints, old photos and newspaper archives.
For Riddell, the most intriguing part of the property is its hidden tunnel system.
“To keep patient morale up, the staff didn’t want anyone to see the bodies, so they took them down there,” Riddell said. “Their way of getting rid of them was to cremate them. They burned mattresses, clothes and bodies.”
The tunnels, he said, provided a path from the hospital to an incinerator near the laundry and boiler room. It gave the staff easy access to each building without an audience.
The tunnels sit mostly unused today, hiding under the recreation center's garage and parking lot. One path leads under the auditorium, while another cuts off beneath the baseball diamond. Some portions are completely sealed off.
But Riddell swears there is a “presence” lurking within.
“When you go into the tunnels, if you say, ‘Hi’ and introduce yourself, that presence will not be as strong,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy and farfetched, but if you just barge in unexpectedly, you will have an unwelcome feeling. You get the sense that something is watching you.”
Riddell said he entered the tunnels several times during his six years at the facility. He even used them as a setting in a low-budget movie he worked on with his friends in 2011.
While taking “behind the scenes” photos for the film, Riddell said he captured something that both frightened and fascinated him.
“It was like 2:30 a.m. and I’m doing stupid stuff. I’m just outside taking random pictures in the dark,” he said. “I had no idea what I got until I looked at the pictures later.”
Riddell claims there was no light source outside the tunnel entrance when he took his photographs. He said he was just snapping away with his digital camera in complete darkness.
This is one of the images he captured:
Riddell said he took this photo while facing the baseball diamond — the same general area where the hospital once stood.
After studying the photo for a few days, he said he realized the shape of the blue light resembled a Dunham Hospital nurse.
“There were no lights outside that could have done that,” he said. “There was nothing there for light to bounce off of. It was pitch black. I have no idea where any of that light came from.”
Many staff members at Dunham have since seen the photo and don’t doubt its authenticity.
“Kenny brought this picture to me and said, ‘What does that look like to you?’” Hartung said. “Honestly, I’m getting chills just thinking about it.”
Riddell took several images from inside the tunnels. He said his camera would occasionally produce photos with “orbs” he couldn’t explain.
To the average viewer, these white circles look like dust or the result of a dirty camera lens. But Riddell claims that's not the case. His camera was clean, he said. And he took multiple photos in the same spot that were "orb-free."
“It is super creepy,” he said. “Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, the place has a certain aura to it. It has a story, and it wants it told.”
There are two entrances outside that lead into the tunnels — one is locked with double steel doors; old tractor parts block the other.
Rusted pipes, chains, spider webs, some graffiti and mold greet you at the entrance. Deeper inside, old pieces of furniture — chairs, the remains of a gurney and bed frames — are stacked along the walls. A small, dirty soccer ball sits feet away from a spot where the tunnels fork in two directions.
Three hospital signs still decorate the walls.
Riddell claims, even while visiting the tunnels in the middle of the night, he could hear a faint chatter in the halls ahead.
“You’ll hear conversations going on,” he said. “You can’t make out what they’re saying. It’s kind of like gibberish. You’ll hear a gurney or wheels rolling, even though you know there’s nothing there.”
The threat of a paranormal encounter isn’t the only thing keeping Dunham’s staff and visitors away from the tunnels.
There’s asbestos inside, Hartung said. And the roof is unstable in certain areas.
While those issues may keep the public from going in, they haven’t stopped “the dead” from coming out, she said.
The staff still gets a good spook every now and then.
“We’ll be sitting around, and it’ll get real cold,” Hartung said. “The doors will shut by themselves. We’ll joke around and say, ‘Uh oh, Dr. Dunham is here.’”