Taos secret underground

Photo: Tina Larkin

Story and image originally published in Taos News

Doña Luz Lane is a whimsical street located just a few steps off the Plaza. Among the many shops that line it is Red Cat Melissiana, a folk art and antique store housed in an old adobe. The front entrance is decorated with honeycups; an inviting turquoise stable door opens to the main room. Judging by its exterior, nobody would guess that the shop hides a secret inside—or, more appropriately, under it.

Two tunnels in a cellar

There are two tunnels that run under Red Cat Melissiana. One is supposed to go to the bandstand in the Plaza —where the town jail used to be— and the other to the house of a friend of Father Martinez’s.

Store owner Melissa Serfling says that she has inspected carefully the space around the tunnels’ entrance.

“I have seen the old pillars, supported on logs and big rocks,” she said. “They look like they are falling down and it’s very likely that the walls have caved in between my shop and the Plaza.”

They don’t seem to be safe to explore so Serfling hasn’t ventured in.

“I am not too good underground,” she admits. “If the tunnel collapses on me, then I would become another one of the many spirit in my cellars.”

The Church connection

Next door to her shop is the restaurant El Gamal, which is believed to have another tunnel that goes directly to the place where Our Lady of Guadalupe Church used to be. According to Serfling, the space where El Gamal is now was a speakeasy then.

“Considering that there were also several brothels on this street, one can assume that all sorts of things went on here,” she said.

At the time when the tunnels were in use, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was located in what is today a parking lot, across the street from Doña Luz Lane.

“The Church burned down in the 60’s and they paved over the cemetery to build the parking lot,” said Serfling. “I imagine that the spirits of the people who were buried there didn’t like that at all!”

An underground network?

Serfling says that there may be many more tunnels in the area.

“Some old neighbors have told me that all downtown Taos is catacombed with passages under the streets,” she said.

Benina Roybal is the owner and manager of Bella’s Mexican Grill, also located on Doña Luz Lane.

“I’ve heard that there are tunnels under the restaurant,” she said. “But I haven’t seen them.”

Douglas Patterson, president of Living Designs Group, owns the building where Bella’s is located. He says that he has been in the cellar several times, but has never seen the tunnels either.

Possible origins

The majority of the houses on Doña Luz Lane were built in the 1880’s and the tunnels probably date from around the same time. One of the most prevalent theories is that they were used as shelters, to protect Taos residents from the Comanche raids.

Serfling, however, doesn’t agree with it.

“I think they were a convenient way to go from one place to another without being seen, whether people were visiting their ‘nighttime friends’ or just going to the Plaza,” she said.

A street with a past

Dona Luz Lane has an interesting and somewhat tarnished history—it was once the red light district of Taos. Doña Luz was the name of the brothel madam. There were also several small shops along the street that sold liquor during the Prohibition times.

Today, many businesses there are owned by women.

“And so we call ourselves ‘The Ladies of Doña Luz,’” said Serfling.

Spirits in the tunnels

According to Serfling, the tunnels, and other places in the neighborhood, are often visited by spirits and some may even reside here. She also tells me that her bloodline leads back to a Salem witch, so she is used to dealing with esoteric presences.

“I greet the spirits in the morning,” she said. “Sometimes they are mischievous and like to tip things over, but in general they keep quiet. However, they let their presence be known: I have been in the cellar at night and heard footsteps above, though there was no one there.”

Fortunately, the spirits don’t bother Red Cat Melissiana’s patrons.

Serfling has owned the store for five years, and says she has never felt apprehensive when she has been alone at night in the shop.

“On the contrary, I get a feeling of acceptance from the spirits,” she said. “But they have been hostile to some men, like a construction worker who found his tools unexplainably moved away from him.”

Serfling believes that some ghosts are the spirits of women who were prostitutes on Doña Luz Lane.

In the cellar

This article wouldn’t be complete without a personal visit to Serfling’s cellar. Dionne De La Cruz, an employee at Red Cat Melissiana, leads me down a wood creaking staircase that ends in front of an enormous Kiva fireplace. Then she shows me the tunnels. The entrances have been blocked and the whole place smells slightly damp. It is ninety degrees outside but down here it feels cold.

I’m happy to go back upstairs.

Kat Pruitt, a writer and retired educator who also works at the store, tells me that she is planning a mystery novel based on the tunnels and their resident ghosts.

“Go for it,” I say. “I bet it will sell well.”