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West Palm couple discovers tunnel in home… and its 1920s secrets

In retrospect you can imagine 1920s-era cars racing up the back roads of Northwood Hills, revenuers hot on their tails as the bootleggers screech into darkened garages.

It’s just not what you imagine when you buy a West Palm Beach home these days. But sometimes history is waiting for you in the basement, as George and Barbarann Paddick found out.

The Paddicks bought their home in the historic neighborhood in 2009. Built in 1926, their cozy, salmon-colored house surrounded by greenery perches on a coastal ridge high above most of West Palm Beach. So high, at 44 feet above sea level, that it has a basement, a feature rarely seen in low-lying Florida.

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This one wasn’t seen much either, except, presumably by those looking for illicit liquor during the Prohibition years. That’s the story, anyway.

It wasn’t until Paddick chatted with a neighbor, though, that he learned of the home’s past and of its secret tunnel.

Paddick said he had no idea of the home’s history until he found himself chatting one day, a few years ago, with a neighbor who owned the home in the 1980s but had since moved across the street. The neighbor just so happened to be Jim Ponce, the county’s pre-eminent historian, famous for his Worth Avenue walking tours in Palm Beach. He was the official historian of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce and The Breakers and president of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

“He asked if the tunnel was still there, between the basement and garage,” said Paddick, who owned a cosmetic car repair business in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is a past commodore of the Palm Beach Sailing Club.

“I said, ‘I don’t have any idea. It’s full of cobwebs and spiders,’” Paddick recalled Thursday. “I went down there and cleared it away and sure enough, there was evidence of a tunnel on the garage side. It’s boarded up, but from the basement you can see it.”

During Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, bootleggers would sneak booze from the Bahamas and elsewhere and haul it ashore in Palm Beach.

The gentlemanly Ponce, who died two years ago this month at the age of 98, told Paddick that the owner of the house would descend to the port, load up his car or old pickup truck with liquor and bring it back into the hills. He’d pull into the garage and pass the bottles down through the narrow tunnel to a helper in the basement, who would stock shelves with it. They’d sell it out of the basement, which is directly underneath the home’s dining room.

The shelf supports are still there, off to a side of the dingy room. The whole room is maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, lit by a hanging bulb. The tunnel entrance, an opening on the side of a wall, has been partially covered over with concrete but it’s there, a tight squeeze at about 2 feet by 2 feet.

And no, alas, no more bottles.

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