The Crofton Tunnels—Explained!

--An Enigma Project Report--


In Weird America, a guidebook to places of mystery in the US, author Jim Brandon recounted the curious story of a complex network of tunnels that were unearthed in Crofton, Maryland during a construction project in 1973[i]. Brandon described:


"An area being made into a parking lot in July of 1973 was found to be infested with small tunnels, about 20 inches wide. Some persons crawled into them and found them more extensive than they cared--or dared--to explore. There was conjecture that they may have been produced by some prehistoric miniman. But William Doepkins, an amateur archeologist, found reason for believing that the array was the habitat of some unknown giant rodent, since he saw large tooth and claw marks on the side of one cave. No rodent remains of any kind, however, were found."


So, who or what dug the Crofton Tunnels? Why were they made and when? Since few facts existed on this mystery beyond Jim Brandon’s reference, then the answers to these questions could end up being nothing more than outlandish opinions from unqualified sources. Within the annals of Fortean, paranormal, or even conspiratorial literature, the subject of tunnels and earthen chambers of unknown origin is one that invites speculation to run rampant.


The Crofton Tunnels could have very easily suffered this fate. Had it not been for an enthusiastic, intelligent, and persistent group of local residents, Crofton’s tunnels might have been variously labeled in paranormal-land as the handiwork of an ancient, hyperactive gnome or some giant, primeval, death-worm.


The drama began on Monday, July 9, 1973 when the earth collapsed beneath a bulldozer that was excavating construction sites in the Crofton Commons Townhouse development. Subsequent examination of the scene revealed some underground chambers and radial tunnels as the cause of the cave-in. That evening, Boris Lang, an executive with the construction company, told the story to his son, Lawrence. Intrigued by the anomalous tunnels, Lawrence Lang contacted his friend Eric Dennard (a local art instructor) to help him explore the mystery. Lang and Dennard quickly realized that the formation was extensive with large chambers and long, ancillary tunnels that existed at depths of 25 feet below the earth’s surface. However, other than some strange markings found on the walls of the odd cavities, they were conspicuously absent of any debris and the two men found no clues to their origin.


Since unusual news travels fast in a small town, William Doepkens, a local farmer and amateur archeologist, learned of the mysterious hollows and offered to assist Dennard and Lang in their examination of them. Realizing the potential scientific importance of the discovery, the men contacted a number of scientific authorities in Maryland, Washington, DC, and surrounding states in the hope of getting the attention they felt the site deserved. In explaining to the construction developer that the tunnels may have archeological value, Dennard and Doepkens were only given limited time to study the formation before construction would resume. Unfortunately, some difficulty was encountered in finding the correct scientific discipline to examine the site. Early on, it was determined by scientists from the Maryland Geological Survey that the tunnels were not natural geological formations (e.g. limestone caves, etc). Other scientists contacted about the discovery showed only marginal interest, feeling that their specialties did not match the nature of the find. One scientist even initially dismissed the tunnels as being caused by underground water erosion--without ever seeing them (see Figure 1)[ii]. Ironically, by the time professional scientists became excited by the findings of Doepkens and crew, the construction project could be delayed no longer, and the tunnels were all but obliterated[iii]. Fortunately, before they were destroyed, Doepkens, Dennard, and Lang enlisted the aid of various friends and family to study them in detail. The group actually explored them, made maps of them, took thorough measurements, soil core samples, photographs, and made plaster casts of the odd markings.


By the first week of August in 1973, construction of the Crofton Commons community continued as planned and its quizzical tunnels dissolved into a murky branch of history.


Having always found the Weird America reference to the tunnels intriguing, during a trip through Anne Arundel County in the late-1980s, I detoured into Crofton and managed to contact William Doepkens by phone. After a brief introduction, I explained to Mr. Doepkens that beyond Brandon’s mention of them, virtually nothing else was known. Doepkens surprised me by saying that he went on to prepare a detailed report based on his group’s study of the tunnels and told me that he would mail me a copy of it. Unfortunately, I never received the document. Some years later, through an unexpected source, I learned that William Doepkens had passed away--and with him the likelihood of ever getting his report. Due to insufficient information, the Crofton Tunnels seemed destined to remain filed as “unexplained.”


In the spring of 2003, the Enigma Project was contacted by Mr. Karl B., an independent researcher who took it upon himself to re-visit the Crofton Tunnel mystery 30 years after it first came to light. The Enigma Project explained to Karl that Doepkens (now deceased) allegedly wrote a report on his investigation of the tunnels and that we were never successful in obtaining it.




Figure1- Crofton Tunnels article, Washington Star-News, July 25, 1973.


As an example of true scientific inquiry, Karl made it a personal quest to find out more about this intriguing mystery. After several months of detective work that involved a number of phone calls and visits to various friends and members of the Doepkens family, Karl obtained the obscure document and sent the Enigma Project a copy.


William Doepkens’ report, the culmination of some impressive research, was published in 1979[iv] yet has essentially remained unknown. This 30 page treatise, that could easily be described as scholarly, is complete with maps, photographs and drawings of the tunnel/chamber complex, numerous references, and cogent text. Doepkens’ paper provides ample evidence, including photographs of castings made of claw and tooth marks, that the extensive array of Crofton Tunnels was probably created by a colony of beavers, many decades ago. Doepkens pointed out that the beaver was beginning to make a comeback in Maryland in the late 1970’s. However, some of his references asserted that the original native beaver population may have been hunted to extinction in the Maryland lowlands (including Crofton) by the mid 1800’s.


Given that the native beaver may have been absent from the Crofton area for possibly 100 years or more before the tunnel discovery, the question arose as to when the amazing network might have been formed. In speculating on the possible age of the structures, Doepkens referenced scientific literature on beaver lodges which described them as being typically littered with finely shredded wood. Of the Crofton Tunnels he wrote,


“Careful excavation of the floor of the main chamber and sub-chamber area yielded no evidence of any wood remains. Surely, if the complex had been abandoned within the last 100 years, something of this nature should have been uncovered. The manner in which the complex had been sealed off and preserved, in accordance with the absence of any organic remains, and the remarkable stability of the soil, leads us to believe that the complex we studied is 275 years old or older, and was dug by Maryland’s native beaver.”


Though William Doepkens was not a professional scientist, his paper demonstrates a level of accuracy, logical deduction, and attention to detail that leaves the reader with an explanation for the mystery tunnels that is not only sensible but abundantly evidentiary in its argument. In fact, when Doepkens presented the raw data that he and his associates collected to establishment scientists, they agreed with the basic premise of his findings:


“On Friday, August 3, 1973, a conference was held at the Smithsonian with the evidence we had given Ray and Hotton[v] and they confirmed our beaver theory. That afternoon, Dr Ray …and Dr. Richard Thorington, Research Department of Vertebrate Zoology of the Smithsonian, and Goldsberry[vi], met us at the [Crofton Tunnels] site and officially determined it was the work of beavers. They brought with them a beaver pelt, with claws attached, and a beaver skull to show us that they could make claw and incisor marks similar in size to those found at Crofton.”


Whatever might remain of the Crofton Tunnels, that Doepkens & crew examined 32 years ago, now rests beneath the Crofton Commons townhouse development—forever lost to further scrutiny of modern science (see Figures 2 & 3). However, thanks to the scientific curiosity and initiative of that “amateur archeologist” and his friends, what was once a perplexing mystery has apparently been solved and its natural origin revealed.



Figure 2- Crofton Commons Townhouse Community                                                                  Figure 3- Tunnel complex once occupied space of all home foundations at left



The Enigma Project would like to express its gratitude to researcher Karl B. for the tenacity he demonstrated in obtaining information on various facets of the Crofton Tunnels--and William Doepkens’ remarkable report.


[i]  Brandon, Jim. Weird America, E.P. Dutton: NY, 1978, p. 101

[ii]  Washington Star-News, “Paleo-Crofton Is Just a Dig” July 25, 1973

[iii]  Though the Dr. Nicholas Hotton, III initially dismissed the tunnels as erosion, he revised his opinion and was eventually among the Smithsonian professionals who later pronounced them as an important discovery.

[iv]  Doepkens, William P. “Excavation of an Extinct Native Maryland Beaver Complex at Crofton, A.A. Co. , Maryland” 1979

[v]  Dr. Clayton Ray and Dr. Nicholas Hotton, III were both Curators of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution (1973)

[vi]  Jim Goldsberry was a mammalogist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis, MD (1973)



©2005 M.A. Frizzell  All Rights Reserved