Between 1920 and 1933 the Continental Tavern in Yardley was the place for a drink.
The business had all the charm that many Americans needed during those 12 years – it was a speakeasy.
But the moral police had been strong long before the Prohibition Era, which banned the production, transportation and sale of booze under the 18thamendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In the mid 1800s, the business was a temperance house. However, owner Samuel Slack was eager to get a liquor license.
He tried. And tried.
But a local women’s group fought fiercely against his attempts to obtain a liquor license in the Quaker town.
After several number of years of petitioning for the license, Slack managed to obtain the permit in 1864, said Frank Lyons, a self-proclaimed history geek and owner of the Continental Tavern for the past five years.
Then, 56 years later, the Yardley bar and those across the country were faced with the prohibition of alcohol as part of a national movement to improve Americans’ lives, protect families and society values from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse, according to PBS.com.
But instead, “thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened. Music heated up. America’s Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp,” according to the website.
In the course of searching for Underground Railroad artifacts underneath the building, one of Yardley’s dirty little secrets was discovered: the Continental Tavern was a robust speakeasy, Lyons said.
It didn’t come to light until about 164 years later, when Lyons gutted the place to restore it. By digging several feet into the ground thousands of glass bottles were found that were used for whiskey and beer.
Lyons, with the help from a local historian, was able to conclude that the Continental Tavern had indeed been a speakeasy through newspapers and license plates that were also found among the bottles.
The initial structure was built in 1845 as a temperance house and store, said Susan Taylor, President of the Yardley Historical Association. Then, in 1866 the proprietor received a license to operate a hotel with 18 rooms. A fierce blaze destroyed the building in 1876. The following year, it was rebuilt.
Throughout the site’s history, seven people have owned it and have made changes to the building. The history buff that he is, Lyons tried to refurbish the building to its days before the blaze.
When he purchased the building five years ago, holding up the building were a couple of rotted cedar posts, he said.
“When we first moved (to Yardley) 26 years ago, I’ve always had a fascination with the American Revolution,” Lyons said. “And when we moved here of course I realized we moved three miles down the road from where Washington crossed the Delaware (River).”
When he moved to the area, he had more reason to delve into research of that time in American history. About 10 years ago, Lyons got involved in the reenactment of Washington’s crossing on Christmas Day of 1776, which is something he’d always wanted to do. Then, he and about 15 to 20 re-enactors formed a company of the regiment out of Massachusetts that did the actual rowing on Christmas for Washington.
“Reenacting is a progressive disease, the more you do it, the more you want to do it, the more you want to learn, the more things you want to do,” Lyons said during a recent interview while sitting on the newly renovated second floor of the Continental Tavern.
Buying the tavern had nothing to do with history for Lyons.
“It wasn’t a history investment,” he said. “It was a real estate business investment. A nice adjunct of that was the fact that it has historical significant to the building.”
When he bought the building it was “old and tired. It needed a lot of work. It was kind of in disrepair. The second and third floors weren’t being used. There had been 18 boarding rooms, but it was called a hotel,” Lyons said.
He began doing the renovations in four phases. The first floor was the first phase so the restaurant could remain open while bringing the building up to code, which was a challenge because the building wasn’t built with a sprinkler, heating or air conditioning systems.
“When this building was built it had no plumbing or electricity,” Lyons said. “It was the first building in Yardley that got electricity.”
Lyons didn’t know what would be found in the building’s foundation as contractors gutted the building and peeled its layers like an onion.
“What we found to much to my surprise and please, underneath the kitchen is an area we call the pit, we nicknamed it. It’s a basement room with 18-inch stone walls, about 15-by-15 and there was no way in from the basement,” Lyons said. “It’s imbedded in the basement, but there was no way into it. There was an outside removal wooden window that was built in the 1930s, late 1930s. Whoever cut that window out of the foundation to get access put the date on the wet concrete. The only way to get into this pit was through a trapped door that didn’t exists when we bought the building. Since then we’ve installed the trapped door to get down into it.
“What we also discovered in the corner of this building was a 90-degree quarter circle wall. We wondered what was behind the wall, so we took a couple of stones out and put a light down and put some cameras and took some pictures. And what we found was a tunnel that went down to the ground.”
The discovered tunnel may have been at one time a sistern to hold gray water, it wouldn’t have been used for sewer underneath the building, Lyons said.
“So we when we got it opened, we began digging,” he said. “We dug about 25 feet and we ran out of rope ladder.”
Local Underground Rail historian Melard Mitchel made the case that the tunnel might have been used to transport and house slaves that fled north.
Mitchel claims there was a tunnel that came up from the area of the canal and connected the Continental Tavern with two other nearby buildings.
So because this tunnel may in fact been part of a larger tunnel system that was down there, Lyons began excavating hoping to find evidence of the Underground Railroad.
By this point, Lyons was doing the digging for his historical curiosity and for some building improvements.
The contractors kept digging, so 8-inch steel columns and heavy concrete footings could be put into place to help sustain the kitchen floor.
“One of the guys digging said, ‘Oh my God, this place is full of stuff,’ ” Lyons said.
The digging continued, an archeological-type grid of the underground area was created along with a cataloging system for the different items that were coming out of the ground.
As they dug they were looking for evidence items of the Underground Railroad. However, after taking about 25 cubic yards of debris they found nearly 10,000 whiskey and beer bottles from the Prohibition era.
“We also found old newspapers and license plates and a few coins,” Lyons said.”When we started digging we were in the mid 1930s.” Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933.
As they kept digging they continue to discover older newspapers and license plates.
“We have a New Jersey tag that’s like 2341 and it’s the two-thousand three-hundred forty first car registered in the state of New Jersey and it’s from 1913,” Lyons said. “Most of the whiskey bottles were broken because what they were doing was throwing the bottles down this secret pit and breaking them with river rocks, but they didn’t break all of them.”
When Lyons bought the Continental Tavern he knew there was some history, but he never imagined the amount of history that was beneath his feet, he said.