Tunnel fever gripped Russian Hill yesterday after a garden-loving grocer uncovered an ancient brick and concrete cupola on a portion of the old Livermore estate.
Philip De Felice, owner of the Hill Tip Grocery at 1701 Jones Street, was digging valiantly to terrace the back yard of his home at 1728-30 Jones Street. He bought it from the Livermores last April.
Two feet down, he struck masonry. A little cautious shoveling indicated he had broken through one side of an arched structure some ten feet in diameter.
There was only blackness beneath the arch. Gingerly probing with a long handle, he felt nothing.
De Felice, not given to flights of fancy, is just letting things lay until his next day off — Sunday. He plans to get to the bottom of things then.
But the discovery touched off a rash of speculation with a historic tinge.
After all, neighbors argued, most people still think that James Flood had a tunnel from his mansion (now the Pacific Union Club) under the street to the vanished Pond mansion on Nob Hill for interesting reasons.
And didn’t James Fair have one from California to Sacramento Street — maybe? And Mark Hopkins another — maybe?
Why wouldn’t the Livermores, as prominent a family as the rest of them, have a tunnel if it was in fashion?
Other hill dwellers conjured up the ghost of a “Russian Hill hermit.” He had a habit of burrowing like a woodchuck into the Jones-Vallejo-Broadway block, they averred. But this didn’t explain extensive construction that would have taken a hefty crew in the days of pick and shovel construction.
In his home at Ross, the present head of the Livermore family, capitalist Norman B. Livermore, said he hated to put a damper on the fun, but he had a possible solution.
“Cisterns,” he explained. “There was no water system on the hill until the ‘60’s or ‘70’s.
“People used to collect rain water in big brick cisterns.
“On the other hand, there were only shanties on that property when we built this particular house about the time of the great fire—and the shanties usually didn’t have cisterns.
“We had one twenty-five to thirty feet in diameter at the family mansion that we still own nearby at 1045 Vallejo Street. It’s used now as a basement.
“When we first breached it, the water must have been seventy or eighty years old—and it was still clear and drinkable.”
Livermore solemnly added that he would make no claim on any gold bullion found in the mysterious vault.