Secret passages and their stories

De Haar Castle

De Haar Castle in the Netherlands. Wouldn’t be surprised if this castle had a secret passage…or 10! Image courtesy of badeendjuh, Morguefile.

When did I first become interested in secret passages? I’m not talking panic rooms or British priest holes, but actual short hallways that take you from point A to point B without being detected.

Maybe my fascination started with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Those imps always found convenient secret passages while they were running around having adventures, chasing ghosts, getting trapped, outwitting villains,  and solving mysteries.

Secret passages have long been used as a plot device to help characters in literature, especially in mysteries and thrillers. The first time I heard one mentioned was in a young adult book, set in England, I think. I don’t remember the title but part of the plot involved kids watching a ghost dressed in historic clothing disappear into a wall and then they broke down the wall to discover a secret tunnel behind it.

Buckingham Palace has a secret passage, but it’s more a door than anything else. In the White Drawing Room (which I saw during a tour), there is a large mirror and table mounted on a door, so that the Royal Family can move from their private rooms to the drawing room to greet guests.

Secret passages also existed in H.H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, owned by one of America’s first serial killers. His bizarre hotel offered shelter, employment and extermination to unwitting victims during the 1893 World’s Fair. Let’s not get too dark, though.

In real life, secret passages and rooms have been used for hiding people, smuggling, just plain fun or other purposes. But seeing secret passages in real life is definitely a thrill. I’ve seen three of them:

1) The House of the Seven Gables, Salem, MA — This one goes from the dining room to a secret attic room. I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, Booking it around New England. For some beautiful photos and a fascinating description of this house, read The Distracted Wanderer’s blog post about visiting the House of the Seven Gables.

2) Stan Hywet, Akron, OH — Stan Hywet Hall is a stupendous Tudor Revival mansion built for Frank Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. It has a secret passage connecting the library to the Great Hall. You can see a bit of Stan Hywet’s Great Hall below in Meghan Carter’s video about Tudor homes.

3) Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, CA — Built by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, it began life as an eight-room farmhouse. Sarah and the builders she hired transformed it into a spectacular mansion with over 160 rooms, with a secret passage, stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto walls, chimneys that don’t reach ceilings and other wacky features.

Blog readers, care to share your own tales of secret passages?


Filed under Writing

12 responses to “Secret passages and their stories

  1. We have a Tudor home in Richmond Virginia transported from England by a billionaire. I’ve toured it but don’t remember the detail. It probably has some semblance of a secret passage, although I imagine some part of it might have been left in England. As for secret places, my all time favorite is The Secret Garden. Not exactly the same kind of place as you describe in your post, however, it piqued my childhood imagination. Dianne

  2. travelrat

    I’ve only ever heard tales of *alleged* secret passages, usually around former smuggler’s haunts … there’s supposed, for instance, to be one from the Mermaid Inn, at Rye, in Sussex. And, the cave under Blarney Castle is *said* to contain a tunnel leading to Cork.

  3. I’ve toured the Winchester House. It’s truly amazing.

  4. Ooh, those priests are sneaky. I had no idea!

    • The ways for hiding them were ingenious. At the time, it was against the law to practice Catholicism.

      Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit priest, was well known for building priest holes. Check him out on Google.

  5. Priests, smugglers, Royals, creepy laboratories, harems, bookcases and wardrobes – is there anything better than the possibility of a secret passage for real or in a book. After the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew – you were always suspicious when reading. Cool post

    • Thanks, Philosopher! As readers, we do like mysteries to figure out, don’t we? I saw a great article this morning about harnessing the power of the Internet to solve real-life mysteries. Fascinating stuff.

  6. The secret passage! Such an interesting post, as always. Our apartment in New York was housed in what was once the Old Police Building… legend had it (and our doorman confirmed) that a secret passage was built during the prohibition leading from the Police Building to the speakeasy just across the street, so the boys in blue never had to be without! I tried to bribe our doorman with baked goods to take me down there, but no dice. 🙂


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