In the small, dank tunnel that snakes beneath Jackson Street, thousands of prisoners have been marched to their day in court and countless judges have made it safely to work.
But they had to walk under a leaking roof when it rained, past crumbling cobblestone walls, and under a low ceiling where signs warned guards and prisoners alike to be careful not to hit their heads.
After several years discussing replacement of the century-old tunnel, the county approved plans this summer to rebuild the link between the Lucas County Courthouse and the county jail. The $1.3 million project began last month and will likely be under construction through April.
Beginning Monday, the project will mean the closure of Jackson Street between Erie and Michigan streets.
"This is the beginning, and if the weather cooperates, we're hoping to meet the April deadline," said Earl Reid, county facilities director. "We will allow traffic to get into the safety building of course, but the public will not be able to use Jackson."
The tunnel was first constructed in the late 1800s as a means to run steam from a county power station across the street to heat the courthouse and jail, and to provide steam to the courthouse elevators. It was also used to escort prisoners from the jail.
But after decades of deterioration, the tunnel became the focus of a renovation project. Crews have since dug out the old tunnel, and plans include elevating Jackson Street to ensure the underground passage has enough clearance.
Judge James Jensen, who has been a common pleas judge since 1995, said that tunnel, with its frequent floods and exposed pipes, has never been a pleasant place to walk. Known for his love of history, the judge said for him it was just another intriguing aspect of the historic courthouse.
"While it was ugly and dreary, I always thought it was quite interesting how long this tunnel had been in use," he said. "I can't tell you how long they've looked at fixing the tunnel. I guess they decided it was about time."
Other work is also being done to the courthouse, said Jean Atkin, administrator for the common pleas court's general trial division. An expanded space for the clerk of courts and the civil division for the sheriff's office is being created, she said.
The courthouse, which dates to 1897, has undergone maintenance and renovation in the past, Mr. Reid said. The goal, he added, is to keep the historic building in service.
"The way I look at it, the courthouse is the crown jewel out there, and we need to support it," he said.
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