Behind a locked door in the lower level of the Goshen Courthouse, a recent group of visitors got a rare peek into the past.
An underground tunnel connecting the courthouse to the old jail between Third Street was built in 1908 and closed off between the two buildings about 20 to 25 years ago, according to Elkhart County Administrator Tom Byers.
The group had the opportunity to walk through the tunnel up to where it’s blocked off underground. Some of the visitors had to duck their heads in the low passageway that smelled musty and dank.
“My understanding (is) the tunnel was typically used for heating (from the jail building),” said Lin Anglemeyer, court security officer. “But on occasion, if they had someone like (John) Dillinger they took advantage of (the tunnel to transport prisoners).”
Dillinger was never held in the Elkhart County jail.
Anglemeyer flipped the light switches and the tunnel became dark once again.
Wanda Hoffman, a member of Goshen Historical Society, led the group to the third floor in the marriage license department for a look into another hidden place — the vault where marriage records are stored.
The marriage records, which date back to 1831, are bound in books approximately six to eight inches in diameter with a cloth-type covering to protect the covers. The books are stacked on top of each other in shelves that reach from the floor to the ceiling.
After a walk-through on the third floor, Hoffman took the group into Judge Terry Shewmaker’s chambers where the judge has a painting behind his desk of Abraham Lincoln.
The judge told the group the painting was commissioned while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency in 1860.
“It was carried as a banner,” Shewmaker said. “It is quite valuable.”
The group also had an opportunity to look around the courtroom used by the judge. There are stained glass windows and painted murals on some of the walls. Acoustic panels are strategically placed around the room.
“I’ve been told the judge can hear someone whispering from the audience,” Hoffman said. “The acoustics are very impressive.”
Down the hall, a worn black leather couch can be found against the back wall in the law library.
“It’s called a swooning couch,” Hoffman said, “and I’m told the judges could rest here if they so chose.”
She also informed the group all the law books in the library were converted to microfiche in 1985 and the floor has had to be reinforced to hold the weight of the books.
“That’s 7 1/2 tons of law books (in the library),” she said.
The visitors from Shipshewana, LaGrange, Wakarusa and Goshen learned some other interesting courthouse historical facts like the Neptune fountain placed in the courthouse square in 1912.
It was donated to the city by a Greek confectioner who had a store in Goshen in the early 1900s.
“(The Greek confectioner) did so well and was so grateful to the city, he ordered the fountain from Europe and Neptune is the Greek God of the Sea,” Hoffman said,
There were several cannons and artillery on the grounds prior to World War II that were donated to make ammunition during the war, Hoffman added.
The first courthouse was built in 1833 and torn down in 1868, right after the Civil War.
In 1870, the new three-story courthouse was built with a clock tower at the south end and twice the height of the main building. The entire courthouse square was enclosed by iron rail fencing with eight gates.
A $100,000 reconstruction took place in 1905 with the clock tower being dismantled and the current dome-like-tower added on.
“They used the same bell that rings today,” Hoffman said.
Then, 80 years later, a $1 million renovation took place with the interior of the building restructured to accommodate offices and courtrooms for three courts, clerks offices and probation. The county administration offices were moved to the new building on Second Street in 1985.