- Note, the following was shot in 2019. I’d started writing about this at some point and simply got too busy to finish it until now. Enjoy.
A few years ago I went into the Rutherford County Judicial Building on business. While there I noticed a large bank vault. The door to this vault had to be nearly a yard wide. Over the years I’d thought about that vault. Mainly it’s age kept bring me back to thinking about it. On the inside of the vault’s door Fram there had been a record of each time the vault had been serviced, some of those records dated back quite some time, some in the mid-twentys. I’d always wanted to see that vault again but time got away from me and in 2017 or so the building was closed down because Rutherford County had built a new Courthouse. Great, I’d never see that vault again. Or would I?
Sitting in my car on a beautiful day it occurred t my that I might just have a way to get into the now empty court house and Forgotten Tennessee, my book might be the key. So I went to the Rutherford County Clerk’s Office to see who I had to talk to to. After hitting a few dead ends I was directed to Mr. Ben Mankin, the Facilities Director for Rutherford County, Tennessee. Initially I was just going to leave a number for Mr. Mankin but no, I decided that finding him, and talking to the man in person was the right thing to do, and as it turned out it was. Mr. Mankin was leaning against a brick wall outside his building, smoking a nice smelling cigar. Introducing myself I told him about my wanting to see and photograph the massive vault I’d seen and that I wanted to include it in my next book. Then I handed Ben a copy of Forgotten Tennessee. Ben’s face lit up as he flipped the pages. After a bit of discussion Ben informed me that He could arrange for me to see and photograph that vault, and the other vaults as well. There were five vaults in total. Five? I had no idea! And one of the vaults was actually only accessible by going through an underground hand-hewn rough tunnel. We made a date for the shoot and away I went with a smile stretching from ear to ear.
Monday morning, 8am found me on the Murfreesboro Square, parked in front of the old Court House. As I checked over the two cameras I’d brought I found myself telling folks who were trying in vain to open the doors to the building. Apparently no one had told them that the court had moved a block over. Mr. Mankin showed up and in we went. I could smell the familiar scent of abandonment. Yes, the county was keeping the lights on and keeping the place clean. But when a building becomes “abandoned” it stops breathing. The smells that say people are there, that people walk, talk, and fill the space. Those smells vanish. The floor was filled with stacks of chairs and assorted building fixtures. and while the lights were on, some had either died or were off since there was no need for the place to be brightly lit up.
We immediately made our way to a room off the main corridor and here was my vault. The shelves that once held office supplies and county information and files were all bare, the counters too. Here and there was a box filled with odds and ends and old office chairs seemed sprout here and there from the old carpet. But mostly my attention is drawn to the vault door, its sheer mass demands it. I walk about the door and admire its construction and find myself that this huge door with its complex mechanisims were built so long ago.
As I walked around the interior of the vault Mr. Mankin explained a some of the more colorful aspects of the vault. For one, I had noticed the door was anchored open. Why? Because according to my guide the building had settled over the years and over those years the door had developed a habit of swinging shut, not entirely but close enough that one day an employee of the City had placed a chair at the entrance to the vault. The 21 ton door slowly shut and predictably crushed the chair. Mr Mankin mentioned that at the time there would have been no danger in the door closing and trapping someone in the vault, after all air was continuously pumped into the vault by a an air pump and generator in the basement. However, recently the generator had stopped working. If a person were trapped in here now, they’d be ok for at least a day. I had begun shooting around the vault and thought maybe that while I was happy to get in the building and shoot, it was a bit of a let down, that was until Mr. Mankin asked if I’d like to see the other vaults?
We left the big vault and went out a side door into what was a lobby for a bank, I’d no idea had been in existence. In this lobby I’m shown two smaller vaults, one no bigger than a closet, and can not be opened because at some point the combination had been misplaced (hopefully no one was inside).
The second vault was much smaller, a wall safe basically, still the door is 3ft by 3ft. and hidden behind a wall panel. Up a flight of stairs we go to another vault, this one had served as the evidence room when the bank had become the Court House for Rutherford County.
I wont lie, I wish it was still full of evidence but sadly it had all been removed and all that was left were filing cabinets. Sensing my let down Ben, asked if I was ready to see the original vault for the bank, it had been built in the years just before the Civil War. I was of course thrilled to see it!
Down the stairs we went all the way to the basement then to a sub basement. I had no idea that such a space existed beneath Murfreesboro’s Square, but it did. At the base of the stairs a regular looking door stood before us, to the right was the entry to the sub basement. I stepped inside this dark barely illuminated space and gawked at the largest air pump/generator I’d seen. The pump was as large as a VW Beetle, and looked like it was built maybe in the 20’s. I was to find out that I was correct, it was indeed that old. Amazingly this anciemt pump had run every year for decades up until 6 years ago when it’s oil pump died and there was no way to replace it. I spent quite some time shooting the pump and the rest of the room. I was stoked! But we weren’t done yet. We went back to the ordinary looking door.
Mr. Mankin opened the door and my breath was taken away by the sight before me. Before me lay a long dirt tunnel lit only by a light at its end. To enter we had to step down onto the dirt floor and watchout for the very real chance of bumping our heads on the foundation of the building next to the one we were in. Down we went and forward the tunnel was no more than three and half feet wide and low enough that we had to walk hunched over. Halfway through the forty foot long shaft was a space on the left in which a plastic jack-o-lantern had been placed. Mr. Mankin’s crew had a sense of humor and liked to leave such morbid little knick knacks for him to find.
As we neared the end of the tunnel I could see there a larger space had been cleared. I took a moment to look around myself in awe. Directly in front of me was a wall of partially excavated dirt. The excavated part showed the foundation for the building above us. Only thick wood and stone columns were holding up the ceiling above us!
To the right of us was an ancient looking array of old wires that I assumed had been a phone switching bank. and beyond that was an old, pitted, rusting steel door that stood partially open. On its front was a combination dial and a large circular steel handle used for opening the vault. I stopped and just drank in the sight, then started shooting. This vault had been built just before the Civil War, and had been used throughout the years as extra storage. Inside the vault was a concrete room filled with old shelves, upon which were a few childrens toys. Creepy? Oh yes. But not as creepy as the dead bird I found in a drop down depression in the vault. How in the hell did a bird find its way into this place?
During my exploration Mr. Mankin told me the vault was rumored to be haunted. While I didn’t see anything beyond what I captured with my camera I will admit the atmosphere was oppressive, and close. Was it ghost or just the fact we were in an underground vault built 159 years ago with tons of dirt and concrete above us supported by wood, river rocks and dirt? I’ll let you decide.
I really hope you enjoyed this exploration below the Murfreesboro, TN Square. Please leave a comment and follow me for more adventures. Be sure to buy my book Forgotten Tennessee, it can be found anywhere books are sold and at