By Shannon Smith
My grandmother always lived on Vashon, that’s how it felt as a kid visiting, and it still feels like that. But I really didn’t start to hear all the old stories of Vashon until my parents broke up around 1996 and I moved to Grandma’s. Not that she shared many stories, but some family got me started on a bad path, and I began hanging out with long-time Islanders. They weren’t saints, but they knew lots of old stories!
Vashon used to have a bunch of military installations, the big ones being up at Sunrise Ridge and Paradise Ridge. There were Nike missiles here, and lots of security surrounding them. Because of the fences and guards, nobody went in exploring, but the locals were always wondering if there were enough large trucks and convoys to explain all the military hardware on the Island. Sometimes, you’d feel a rumbling in the ground, and although my grandmother would just say it was a train on the mainland … lots of locals said it felt closer than that. As in, right beneath your feet.
As the wars wound down and the military on Vashon started leaving, it was finally possible to start exploring. It wasn’t as if the military left any helpful maps, so exploring would mostly only find you piles of worthless garbage. Lots of buildings and storage spaces were still locked up with steel doors and high-security padlocks.
One guy – a high-schooler at the time – found a steel door that some military workers had left unlocked by accident. He said that behind the door was a man-sized concrete shaft going straight down, with ladder rungs embedded in the concrete. He went down into the dark as far as he dared, but finally had to turn around because he couldn’t see anything. The air probably wasn’t too good, either. By the time he scared up a strong flashlight and came back, the access door was locked again.
That was at Sunrise Ridge, but most people were sure that there was a tunnel connecting Paradise Ridge to it. The concrete shapes you see embedded in the ground there are probably a part of it, but it’s all pretty securely buried. There were stories claiming that there was a hidden access door which swung open. To hide it, the door had wire attached and sod growing right onto it. The whole thing swung open like a big square of grass, but just looked like lawn on a pile of dirt when closed. But whoever had started the story never showed it to anybody, so you can believe it or not.
Back at Sunrise Ridge, another friend who had started from that vertical shaft worked his way outward from there to finally find a regular, sloped tunnel heading down into the ground. Unlike the vertical access shaft, this one was big enough to walk in, and even cart equipment with you. He said there was lots and lots of rusting metal junk along the shaft. When you went in far enough, the junk entirely blocked the tunnel, and he started pulling pieces back up the tunnel to get further down the tunnel. One day, he came back to find that the water had risen and flooded out the tunnel entirely. No more searching.
My own discovery came when I was digging around online back when the Internet was pretty new. I found a military map which I think had been put online by accident. It covered Vashon, and showed lines between Sunrise, Paradise, and even down to a dock. But thicker, gray lines also connected Fort Lewis, Vashon, and Bremerton. I feel like if we looked deep enough, we’d find old military civil defense tunnels, although they’re probably all full of seawater by now.
I’ve looked many times since, but never again found that map.