Big Well 506

This stairway leads down tow the largest hand-dug well in the world. Photo by David Kidd

I recently flew into Wichita on my way to Greensburg, Kansas. I was there to take pictures of Steve Hewitt, the City Administrator of Greensburg for a future profile. Greensburg had famously been leveled two years ago by a category 5 tornado. Steve is in charge of the rebuilding effort. I arrived a day early to give myself a little time to look around before I got down to the purpose of my visit.

I asked the kid behind the Avis counter if there was something special I should see while in Kansas--maybe the world's largest ball of string, or something like that.

"No," he said, "there's nothing like that around here." So I located my dark red Chevy Impala in the rental lot and headed west on U.S. Route 54.

As Greensburg got closer, I started noticing billboards imploring me to "See the world's biggest hand-dug well." This was just the kind of thing I was hoping for. As it happened, I was headed right for it. The world's biggest hand-dug well is, or at least was, the feature attraction in Greensburg, Kansas.

Greensburg is a small town and the terrain is so flat, that it is not hard at all to find anything if you just look around a bit. Within minutes of my arrival, I was looking at the Big Well through the windshield of my Impala.

I wasn't actually looking at the well. That's underground. I was looking at a small log cabin sort of building that serves as the Big Well welcome center. I found out later that this was just a temporary structure used to house the gift shop until money could be raised for a new building. The old one had been destroyed by the tornado.

Next to the building was a circular stone wall about a foot high and 30 or 40 feet in diameter. I could tell that this was in fact the top of the well which was capped with a small skylight that had at least one of its panes missing. Just outside the circle was a new-looking set of metal doors, the kind you would see outside someone's house, allowing access to a cellar. This is how you enter the well. The cellar doors were locked.

I returned the next day and stepped into the log cabin where I met Big Well Manager Stacy Barnes who was keeping watch over the gift shop.

"Sorry," she said. "The well's been closed since the tornado."

I knew she could see the disappointment on my face. I knew too that she was not going to let me see the Big Well. I looked at some tornado-damage pictures displayed on the wall and flipped through a few books before saying goodbye and heading out the door to my appointment with Mr. Hewitt.

I spent the next few hours with Steve and Assistant City Administrator Kim Alderfer on a driving tour of town. Naturally, we ended up at the Big Well.

"You want to see it?" Steve asked me, and I followed him inside to get the keys to the cellar door. I made sure to let Stacy know that I had not meant to go over her head to gain access to the well. It was, after all, Steve's idea. "He's the boss" she said cheerfully.

Steve fumbled with the lock for a good ten minutes. I was beginning to feel bad for him. "It's OK" I lied, "I don't need to see it." But a man who will not be beaten by a class 5 tornado will not be beaten by a cheap little padlock. In the next minute he swung the door open. All I could see was a few metal steps leading into blackness.

I went first, expecting my new friends to follow behind. I should have known that Kim wouldn't go with me. Her high heels would never work on the steps that I can only describe as similar to a very long fire escape. "These steps are as safe as they were when they were new" said Steve. "I'll wait here. You go ahead." And Stacy couldn't come with me either. Someone had to man the store.

I couldn't really tell if the steps were safe or not because I couldn't really see them. The only light came from the open door and the broken skylight. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could now see that there were four or five landings below me as the stairs zig zaged toward the bottom some 109 feet below.

I carefully made my way down, stepping over and around stray bricks, rocks and bits of debris that littered the steps and came to the conclusion that I might be the first person to be down there in quite some time. The very bottom was filled with water so dark that I could not tell if it was six feet or six inches deep. After taking a few minutes to enjoy being at the bottom of the world's biggest hand-dug well, I took a few pictures and began the ascent. Every once in a while I could hear Steve say in a loud voice that "these steps are still very safe, as safe as the day they were built."

Those stairs were built in 1916.

Later that day I was informed that my flight home had been canceled, but the airline had a nice motel room waiting for me. Since I had returned the Impala, I was now stranded at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Comfort Inn with nothing to do. I picked up one of the tourist guides in my room and thumbed through it.

"See the World's Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker, Kansas" read one of the many ads. But the ball of twine was 177 miles away. It would have to wait.

Story Behind the Story appears every Tuesday.