AS customers eat lunch at the Unicorn Hotel on Sturt Street, their toes brush over a trapdoor that leads to another world underground.
In the darkness under the street, cellars, tunnels, bakeries and buried shop fronts — possibly even a restaurant — lie dormant.
Years ago, they may have plied a busy trade. Now they’re buried under the pavement as the level of Sturt Street has risen.
The Courier took a tour underneath Ballarat this week and discovered a forgotten world that many have heard about but few have seen.
Jill Blee, president of the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, said the lost shop fronts were always slightly underground, but were accessible from street level by a set of stairs which led to a “lower” Sturt Street.
Ms Blee also pointed out old stairs which led to existing businesses on ground level.
“There were plans to put a restaurant down here, but we can’t be sure if it ever happened,” she said. “But we do know there was a number of businesses down here.”
Ghost tour operator and history buff Nathaniel Buchanan said he was organising an underground tour of Ballarat in time for Heritage Weekend next year.
“Lydiard Street’s level has risen by three meters in some sections and parts of Sturt Street have risen too,” he said.
“Ballarat was full of hills and cliffs and they decided to make it flat by using the by-product from the gold mines, but the buildings were already there, so parts of them are now underground.”
Mr Buchanan said the old shop fronts beneath the Mechanics’ Institute, the bakery under Reid’s Guest House in Lydiard Street North and various cellars under hotels were highlights of Ballarat’s underground architecture.
He said a “dungeon” beneath the University of Ballarat’s SMB campus library was also of note.
“It’s surprising how many Ballarat residents have no clue about what’s underground here,” he said.
“The tour we are planning is just for Heritage Weekend, but we’d love to make it a regular thing.”
Ballarat Historical Society president Andrew Wallace said the existence of Ballarat’s underground architecture was known, but there was no published list or catalogue of below-ground structures.
“In the good old days, nearly every building had some sort of cellar or basement,” he said.