Did Al Capone use a secret tunnel under downtown St. Petersburg for smuggling?

As with the tunnels of Ybor City, originally built to serve as sewers, the passage in downtown St. Petersburg may have started with a practical purpose.
Published December 13 2018
Updated December 13 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Construction is providing new glimpses into the old tunnels running beneath Ybor City, but the historic Latin district isn’t the only place in the Tampa Bay area where underground passages may have been put to illicit use.

Downtown St. Petersburg has one, too.

The discovery last month of curved, brick-lined tunnel at 12th Street and Sixth Avenue rekindled discussion in Ybor City about whether smugglers used the tunnels during the Prohibition era.

There has been similar talk about an more sophisticated tunnel — square, concrete and reinforced — that runs behind a wall of the basement office at Volunteers of America, inside the historic Snell Arcade building at 405 Central Ave in St. Petersburg.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Historians now agree that Ybor tunnels were built as sewers

A wall now blocks the tunnel, but the it appears as if the passage might run beneath Fourth Street.

It has been associated with the most infamous rum runner of all — Chicago underworld boss Al Capone.

"We're told he used part of our basement as an office," said Janet Stringfellow, the Volunteers of America president.

That may be so, historians said.

As with the tunnels of Ybor City, originally built to serve as dual storm and sanitary sewers, the Snell Arcade tunnel may have started with a practical purpose, according to researchers with the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

It may have served as a utilities entrance, for example, and there have long been rumors that downtown tunnels were used to carry large sums of money into banks, said Nevin Sitler, museum curator.

Gangsters, as they did in Ybor City, may also have found another use for the tunnel.

“A way to bring the booze in," suggested Rui Farias, executive director of the history museum.

Farias noted that the Snell Arcade hosted a rooftop nightclub during the Prohibition era. Whether it was a speakeasy serving illegal alcohol remains just conjecture, though. Locations all over St. Petersburg were rumored to have been speakeasies, Farias said.

In the early 1930s, Eagle Taxi had an office inside the Snell Arcade and an employee was busted a few times for selling moonshine out of the building, said Scott Deitche, who documents the Tampa Bay area’s mafia history.

During the land boom of the 1920s, Capone purchased a lot of property in St. Petersburg, spent time in the city, and by some accounts held an interest in a speakeasy, Deitche said. Still, he said, “‘Capone was here’ is like the ‘George Washington slept here’ of St. Pete. There was no one tracking his movements, so it's hard to know what is true."

Besides one small brick wall near its entrance, the tunnel is concrete all around, including the floor.

"You can comfortably walk through it," said Stringfellow with Volunteers of America, which has had offices in the Snell Arcade since 2013.

Six feet high and wide enough for two adults to walk side-by-side, the tunnel runs about 30 feet under the sidewalk along Central Avenue. Glass-block skylights in the sidewalk form part of the ceiling of the basement office, but not where the tunnel runs.

It appears the tunnel runs beyond the wall, beneath Fourth Street to a former bank building that now houses the city of St. Petersburg’s Municipal Service Center.

The city isn’t using any tunnel, though — for reasons legal or otherwise.

"With respect to bootlegging, I can state unequivocally that we would never engage in such nefarious activity," quipped Benjamin Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman. "But the mayor does like a good rum."

Today, the Snell Arcade houses individually owned residential and commercial spaces.

It was built for commerce, but the museum’s Sitler questions whether the tunnel ever served a bank because of its challenging entryway — a four-square-foot opening in the wall that requires a stepladder to enter.

What’s more, no record has been found of any tunnel serving a bank, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the city's Historic Preservation Division.

If the tunnel served a legitimate purpose, Sitler leans toward access to underground gas and electric utilities. That’s also the view of Peter Fischbach, who owned the Snell Arcade from the mid-1990s through early-2000s.

Said Farias, the museum director, "I would assume it was a service tunnel, as well. But I'm hoping the rumored stories are true."

The original blueprints for Snell Arcade would settle the question, but no one seems to have them.

The 45,000-square-foot, 10-story, Mediterranean revival-style building was developed by C. Perry Snell and designed by the architectural team of Kiehnel and Elliott.

The first basement tenant was Bob's Cafeteria, operated by Bob Ely. There are no indications of illegal activities there or anything that would explain a secret tunnel.

Over the years, developers and tenants have adapted the arcade tunnel to their own needs.

A small wooden door marks the wall entrance, fluorescent lights have been installed throughout, and windows were cut into the wall facing the office.

And in these modern times, for employees at Volunteers of America, the tunnel is indeed serving a devious purpose, said president Stringfellow.

"They like to sneak into it and bang on the window to scare me."

Times Senior News Researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.