By Herb Wills
The West Pensacola Street pedestrian tunnel is finally gone. I saw it yesterday unearthed and lying upside down. While I watched, an earth-moving machine poked at the dead tunnel with its single arm, then carefully rolled it over. It was like one of the Martian war engines from H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” curiously examining a human artifact. What beings made this? Why was it built?
The tunnel was to get people on foot safely from one side of Pensacola Street to the other, and over the years those pedestrians included many runners. If you were going to get from the Florida State University track to the good running areas south of the university campus, then you would most likely end up running through the tunnel. This was especially true after Pensacola Street was widened to four lanes in the 1980’s. The “Stadium Loop”–a two-mile circuit that followed Chieftain Way, West Call Street, Stadium Drive, and West Pensacola Street– included a run through the tunnel. Without exaggeration it can be estimated that runners logged hundreds of thousands of miles on the Stadium Loop over the years.
The FSU intramural cross-country race followed a two-loop, two-mile long course that included two passages through the tunnel. I remember running the same course during a Leon vs. Choctawhatchee cross-country meet in 1974. When you ran through the tunnel, all you could hear was your own breathing and your spikes striking the pavement. Once out the other side, you could listen for the spikes of the runner behind you; when they stopped, you knew that he had exited the tunnel as well. It was a handy way of checking your lead without looking back. By 1975 the Florida high school cross-country distance had been moved up to three miles for boys, but I remember running a three-mile high school race–Leon vs. Shanks–on the FSU campus in 1976 that included the tunnel.
The tunnel’s destruction was part of a larger project, the removal of West Pensacola Street between Chieftain Way and the west part of Stadium Drive, a stretch known as the Pensacola Street Bridge. The bridge was over both Stadium Drive and a portion of the Florida, Georgia, and Alabama Railroad, although the rails have been gone for decades now. The Stadium Loop and all the aforementioned cross-country courses passed under the bridge on Stadium Drive, as did one of the incarnations of GWTC’s Chenoweth 15K. The Racing South Ladies’ 10K went over the Pensacola Street Bridge both going west and coming back east. The Gulf National Bank 4-mile, forerunner of the Springtime 10K, was run in the Campbell Stadium area, so it may have included either the bridge or the tunnel, but that’s a question that someone who remembers the course will have to answer.
Over the years a lot of distance running has been associated with that quarter-mile of West Penscola Street; over, below, and around it. And now the whole stretch is gone. So please pardon me and the other area running geezers if we drag out our memories and parade them around, because that’s all that’s left.