The Vista’s Lincoln Street tunnel is turning from drab to destination

A rendering of the landscaping project underway at the entrance to the Lincoln Street tunnel in the Vista.
A rendering of the landscaping project underway at the entrance to the Lincoln Street tunnel in the Vista. Provided photo

A hidden gem in downtown Columbia is transforming from something like a secret dungeon into a not-so-secret garden. From bland and uninviting to bright, exciting, beckoning.

Inspired by the lasting marks – literal and figurative – left by the historic flood of 2015, a group called Leadership Columbia has embarked on an art and landscaping project to bring life to the little-known, lightly traveled Lincoln Street tunnel in the Vista.

“We wanted to commemorate the spirit the community had through” the flood, said Austin Gawler, part of this year’s 60-member Leadership Columbia class. “The unique strength that Columbia has, the unity we had coming together, helping one another and the passion for rebuilding after the flood.”

Leadership Columbia is taking some of the themes that emerged in the flood’s aftermath – unity, community, passion – and splashing them over the space where Lincoln and Lady streets meet. They’ve deemed the project “Watermarked.”

Greenery-laced trellises, flower beds running over with color and glowing lights strung overhead will charm you. They’ll lead you down a path where concrete walls grow taller beside you as they transform into vivid murals telling the story of the city. They’ll invite you under the street through a tunnel that walks you decades back in Columbia’s history.

Trains used to pass through the same tunnel. The trail follows a century-old rail bed that ran through the heart of the city. It opened in 2012 as a biking and pedestrian path paid for by public and private dollars.

The tunnel is “a totally underappreciated part of town,” said Lee Snelgrove, director of One Columbia for Arts and History, which helped Leadership Columbia select artists to contribute to the project. “A lot of people don’t know that it exists. ... And it’s a really interesting and neat space.”

Leadership Columbia raised some $40,000 in private funding for the revitalization project, Gawler said.

Columbia artists Michael Dantzler and Keith Tolen have been commissioned for a pair of Columbia-centric murals, one featuring an abstract map of the capital city and the other harking back to the days of passenger rail cars rolling through town. The Leadership Columbia class is painting two more murals of their own.

The new tunnel entrance will be unveiled at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 20. The unveiling will kick off the annual Artista Vista arts celebration, which will include the dedication of a sculpture that same night across the street from the tunnel. Already near the tunnel entrance is another sculpture, by artists from Columbia’s sister city Kaiserslautern, Germany, installed in 2014 with help from the Vista Guild.

The Lincoln Street tunnel entrance has the potential to become a Columbia icon, a destination for residents and visitors. Snelgrove envisions the murals as backdrops for photographs, a feature that will draw people to the tunnel.

“Bringing attention through this landscaping and the murals, beautifying that end of the tunnel will allow more people to utilize it,” Snelgrove said.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.