COLONIE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Motorists driving along one of the Capital Region’s busiest roadways likely have no idea that they are traveling over a secret underground passageway that is literally cemented in New York history. While we can’t say exactly where the tunnel is, we can tell you why it exists.
“This stone here is from Lucas Witbeck,” says Jill Witbeck Knapp as she points to a fragmented headstone.
Lucas Witbeck is one of Jill Witbeck Knapp’s ancestors. He is buried in the Witbeck family cemetery. Generations lived, died and were buried on what was once a vast family homestead.
“It’s fascinating to be here with the rich history that it’s had,” adds Jill. “It’s kind of fascinating that it was saved. But it’s also surrounded by most of what’s happened to the Town of Colonie.”
What “happened” was the suburbs. In the early 1980s, the farm was sold off to the state paving the way for Alternate Route 7, linking I-787 to the Northway.
Luckily, the cemetery was preserved, yet it became landlocked. It was cut off from any access by on and off-ramps for the Northway and route 9. After some pressure from the Town, the Department of Transportation dug deep and came up with a solution — an underground tunnel.
Colonie Town Historian Kevin Franklin says that the tunnel was constructed by the New York State Department of Transportation with the specific purpose to have access to the Witbeck Cemetery. While walking through the tunnel you can hear cars passing above on Alternate Route 7. The tunnel emerges near the cemetery grounds.
“You can hear the traffic above us. It’s a safe walk as long as you don’t hold your head up too high,” he says. “Thousands of vehicles every day that pass over the top of this tunnel and hardly anybody knows that it’s here.”
At the cemetery, among the toppled headstones are the founders of the town. Three are Revolutionary War veterans.
The land is still owned by the Witbeck family but maintaining it is problematic due to its location. That’s where Chris White comes in. Chris is a volunteer, who is widely known for his work restoring and maintaining old cemeteries. This is one of his many current pet projects.
“This is church for me. These are people, just like you and I. And unless someone is doing a family tree, these people who have been gone for 200-plus years, they’re all lost to time,” says Chris.
That’s why he doesn’t mind making the trek through sometimes dark and cramped spaces to help preserve what time and the elements could eventually erase.
“If these folks could talk, I would imagine that they would be happy that you’re here,” said Anya.
“I would love to hear them say thank you. And maybe one day I’ll get to meet them,” says Chris.