1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


The Trunk Room

John McCurdy - May 17, 2011

The Virginia Military Institute stands proudly and as a sentinel on the cliffs of East Lexington . Overlooking Woods Creek in one direction and the cliffs of the Maury River ninety degrees to the southwest. Since 1839 the Barracks has been the home of the Old Dominions Citizen-Soldiers. Before that it was the storage point and Arsenal for the arms of the western part of the Commonwealth.

In 1834 legislation was passed in the General Assembly that would establish a military school at the site. The students would protect the arms stored there and at the same time be schooled in higher education as well as in military training.

The Engineer for the State of Virginia, Colonel Claudius Crozet, a graduate of Le Ecole Polytechnique and an officer under Napoleon was elected to lead what was to be called the Board of Visitors. That governing board of the Institute serves Virginia even today.

The Institute began to provide scientific training in engineering, and teachers for the schools of Virginia as well as military officers for the State and the nation.

The “Barracks” was the first building, enlarging the old Armory, it was completed in 1850 and was burned in 1864 by the Union forces under General David Hunter. Reconstructed almost immediately it stands today on the original limestone foundation blocks of the first Arsenal.

There are two main entrances into the barracks, the Jackson and the Washington Arches. There are other ways to be admitted to this place, some semi public and some secret ways, but these are the two that all will remember when other memory grows dim.

In the cool, darkness of the Washington arch, where the Officer of the Day is stationed in his ancient rooms, steps go down into the limestone pavers, down under the very Arch, one and then two story’s down, where the sounds and the lights of the surface no longer can be discerned, this is the Trunk Room.

In the 1800’s and the early part of this century cadets arrived by carriage and rail from all over the county and world, but most generally from the South. They were immediately thrust into the cadet uniform and subjected to the cadet discipline. Their trunks and valises and the cloths of civilian life were sent to storage in the cold, dry crypts of the Trunk Room beneath the massive arch that had first admitted them to the Cadet Corp.

At the bottom of the stone steps a massive wooden door with great wrought iron hinges and a huge lock secured the room against further passage.

In the early 1940’s, my Father was the Commissary Manager of the Institute, as a young lad and a favorite of the faculty and staff I was allowed access to nearly everything on the Post. The gymnasiums and the athletic equipment were almost my own, I was allowed to roam the stacks of the library and the laboratory’s and classrooms at will, even at the Museum I was allowed to lift and examine the many treasures kept there. I was very careful never to abuse the trust given to me.

The Trunk Room slowly, through the years, fell into disuse, the cadets began arriving by other methods of transportation and gradually not even the maintenance staff made visits. Early in the decade the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, Colonel William Couper, “Class of 04“ and the author of “100 Years at V. M. I.” decided that much needed space must be at hand and on a summer day decided to investigate. A certain 13 year-old kid was in the process of roaming through the almost empty Barracks and was invited to accompany him on his investigation.

Colonel Couper had found the long, unused key and unlocked the great door, there was a string of single electric lights that supplied only minimal illumination but Colonel Couper had the foresight to also come prepared with a large flashlight. The room was about 40 feet to a side and had walls of massive limestone blocks, the ceiling was oppressively low, scarcely over our heads a foot. The far side of the room had what appeared to have been a arched doorway in the long ago, it was now sealed with brick with the exception of a foot square hole near the ceiling with steel bars prohibiting entry but allowing a breeze of fresh air to come into the room!

Colonel Couper mused aloud about from where the fresh air could be coming, He was a large man and much too wide to even dream of getting through the vent hole, even if the bars were not there. However he tugged at the bars and with only a minimum amount of effort they came loose from the old sand mortar that had secured them. He asked me if I would let him help me up to look into the opening, I could see little other than a tunnel going further than the flashlight could illuminate. I could see the floor on the other side of the wall and felt I could easily go through and return, after only a few seconds of thought Colonel Couper told me to go ahead if I wanted but to be very careful and go no further into the tunnel than a point from which I could still see the lights of the Trunk Room vent.

It was easy for a thirteen year old to wiggle through the hole, I admit I had some trepidation about going further into the tunnel but I did it anyway. I came to several offshoots, other smaller tunnels branching off in other directions only one of which contained anything. That area did contain a number of large old black, cast-iron pots with lids too heavy for me to lift, and so, I decided to go no further. I easily wiggled back through the vent opening and told Colonel Couper about what I had seen. We locked up and left, I recall The Colonel saying, “We’d better not say anything about our little adventure, Johnny, let’s just keep it our secret”.

In the years since then I have heard reports that the tunnel went all the way to the cliffs above the river and was intended, and used, as one of the secret passages to enter or leave the Institute. I have my own suspicions, based on some activities I witnessed later that year, that the tunnel may have contained a portion of the treasure reported to have been hidden by the Confederacy when the outcome of the War was no longer in doubt. When the reconstruction of the Barracks from the fire and destruction of Hunter’s Raid was in progress the further concealment of the treasures of the South could have easily been possible, waiting for the time of need. I am sure I will never know the complete story or perhaps it is not yet completed.

John C. McCurdy
September 5, 1965


Please enter your name to comment.
HTML Comment Box is loading comments...