Remembering Rose: Rumored 'tunnel' not even big enough for Major Mertz

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Editor’s note:In memory of longtime reporter Rose Post, who died this year, the Salisbury Post is reprinting some of her columns. This one appeared in the Post on March 31, 2007.
OK, this is not — get that clearly, please — not another column about a Salisbury character, even though it might occasionally touch on some former residents who were.
It’s about a tunnel on South Main Street. Landis’ Clarence Oldham called to talk about the tunnel earlier this week when he read about the dedication of a plaque on the site of the former Capital Theater.
He said we should ask about a tunnel connecting the old Empire Hotel with the Meroney Theatre.
Joe Morris certainly wouldn’t be called a character. He’s planning and community development manager for the city of Salisbury.
However, it sounds like he told Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., that he’d heard there’s a tunnel under Main Street from the Empire Hotel. Of course, the hotel hasn’t operated for years, but the name is still there above the stores that now occupy the area originally occupied by the Empire.
But Randy has never seen the tunnel. Joe Morris “told me he’d heard there’s a tunnel, but it’s more like a small tunnel with pipes in it. Not even Major Mertz would fit in it.”
Major Mertz? Who was he?
A midget, Randy says.
“People always gave midgets a title, and they’d be with the circus. Major Mertz was this midget’s name. He became a bill collector in Salisbury when he retired from the circus, and he was an honorary policeman.”
Major Mertz was only 46 inches tall, but that was tall compared to his wife, Meriah, who was a mere 36 inches tall and weighed 38 pounds when she was fully grown.
Besides the tunnel, Clarence Oldham also said his mother saw Otto Wood, an outlaw who was killed in Salisbury years ago. But Otto Wood didn’t have anything to do with Major Mertz or midgets or a tunnel.
And Oldham was pretty sure about the tunnel.
“There was a tunnel under South Main Street,” he said. “They had that tunnel so people could go all the way from Sears, which was on the corner of the Empire Hotel block, to where the State movie theater used to be. People could come through the tunnel and get behind the curtains on the theater stage.
“I’ve heard about them going through there. I was just a kid then, about 12 or 13.
“They had plays at the first Meroney Theater that became the State movie theater that’s now the second Meroney, and the actors would go through the tunnel, and nobody would see them until they appeared on stage.”
Joe Morris thinks that tunnel has grown bigger in people’s imaginations.
“I have seen a tunnel under the street with my own eyes, and it’s maybe 2 or 3 feet in diameter.
“Apparently, there was a boiler in the Empire Hotel that piped steam or hot water to the Meroney, so a tunnel was dug to accommodate a steam pipe which was a 3- or 4-inch diameter pipe. It’s been about 15 years since I saw it.
“But in my estimation, it is not passable by people. It was not built by people on hands and knees, and the notion that it was an underground tunnel that Sarah Bernhardt could walk back and forth in … I think that’s more of a local legend.
“Reid Leonard, director of Piedmont Players, showed it to me right before they started the restoration of the Meroney Theater. You could see the pipe going off into the darkness. That could be sort of exaggeration, but it was never for purposes for human passage.”
But whatever that tunnel was for, he says, there is a tunnel under the parking lot for City Hall, which is the old Security Bank building.
A drive-through teller on Lee Street was at the end of the bank parking lot, and the tunnel was built so people could walk from the basement of the Security Bank building to the drive-through teller.
But that other tunnel that supposedly goes across South Main Street?
Joe Morris has a personal theory.
“I think,” he says, “it’s one of those urban legend things.”