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Tacoma's Secret Tunnels

HistoryLink.org Essay 7379 : Printer-Friendly Format

This is an account of the rumored secret tunnels under the streets and buildings of Tacoma. It was written by Steve Dunkelberger.

The Legend of the Tunnels

The legend of the “tunnels” under Tacoma ranks up there among some of the most the most persistent urban legends of the nation. Tales of some undefined catacomb spidering around the City of Destiny -- either to shuttle kidnapped sailors from seedy taverns to the working waterfront before they sobered up or to smuggle Chinese workers back into the city after they had been driven out by racist mobs -- have been persistent for more than 100 years. The stories may survive simply because they are true, or they are based in truth, but have been embellished over the years. Or they are simply a social experiment that says more about the times in they were told than about historical event. Theories abound. Evidence does not.

“That some tunnels around the city existed is well documented,” Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room Librarian Brian Kamens says. “How extensive they are and what they were used for is a different matter.” Rumor has it that during the last quarter of the 1800s, the more-than-a-few rough-and-tumble bars of Tacoma had trap doors in their saloon floors that sent drunken sailors and riff-raff to a secret basement, where the sailors would be kidnapped and smuggled to the trading ships waiting in Commencement Bay. These ships were always in need of new sailors because the work was hard, life was unpleasant, and the pay was uncertain. Instead of creating incentive plans and signing bonuses as firms do today, shippers would pay a bounty to tavern owners to supply “sailors” in hopes the ships would set sail before the booze wore off. San Francisco and other port cities on the West Coast have similar stories.

The practice is based in fact, although the particulars are a matter of debate. It was called Shanghaiing, largely because shippers crafted the practice in that Chinese city as a way to shuttle cheap labor to America to build the transcontinental railroad. A drunken sailor could also pass out one night in a bar in Seattle or Tacoma and wake up on a ship bound for Shanghai.

This version of the story generally involves the bars along Pacific Avenue because they sit along a hillside that slopes into Commencement Bay, making the shuttling of knocked-out sailors easy and undetectable. One such story is that of the Bodega Bar, built in 1889 at 709 Pacific Avenue. It is currently [2005] the Meconi's Pub and Eatery, but was the seediest bar and brothel in the city at the turn of the last century. The story behind its tunnels has some history with it after a man in 1936 approached workers on the site and asked them if they had found the tunnel there yet. They had not. He waited. They found it a short time later. The story made the newspaper and has been cited several times as proof the Shanghai tunnels existed. Others say the tunnels were simply part of the old cellar that had not been filled in before buildings were constructed nearby. “There has been so much earth moving in that area that any tunnels have been filled in by now,” librarian Kamens said.

A related story is one that tells about a tunnel that ran under the roadway at Fawcett and 13th Street. It held that the passage allowed the upstanding businessmen of the late 1800s to park their wagons on one side and crawl through to a flop house turned brothel on the other side of the street without being seen. Other stories of tunnels involve variations on this theme, but the locations and specifics change. Sometimes it is an opium den, other times a brothel, other times even an underground bar during Prohibition. The stories often end on the same note. Construction workers found the tunnel after hearing about the legends and then covered it up to keep the roadway from sinking if the tunnel collapsed. That solves the problem of having people out looking for the tunnels.

A construction project in the Rhodes Building early in 2005 rekindled interest in the Chinese tunnels. A worker in the building, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear that his boss would frown on the idea of a worker thinking about crawling through a tunnel during company time.

Among the most outlandish versions of these tunnel stories is that a tunnel was made under the Narrows to shelter Chinese workers following the expulsion. (Tacoma expelled its entire Chinese community on November 3, 1885.) Some newspaper clippings found in the Northwest Room's files on the tunnels mention first-hand accounts of these tunnels and talk about details such as rows and rows of bunk beds used by the fleeing Chinese. No solid evidence of these tunnels has ever been found. Librarian Kamens believes there never will since the story is likely simply an urban legend. “A tunnel like that would take years to make,” he said. “And besides, it would cost something like a billion dollars. But most of all, you don¹t need a tunnel in the first place.”

Anyone who wanted to shuttle fleeing Chinese families or workers out of Tacoma to safe harbor in the suburbs could have just used the miles and miles of forests that sat just outside the city limits. Or they could use boats. There was no need to dig a massive tunnel.

“Even so, people come in and swear they have been in the tunnel,” he says. This idea of a tunnel from Tacoma to Fircest has at least some basis in truth. the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. sought to run a train to Portland but could not get permission from the rival Union Pacific Railroad to use the Bennett tunnel around Ruston Way and Point Defiance. Railroad officials set out to run a line through what is now the Nalley Valley. That route involved a tunnel that opened up around what is now the Pierce County Humane Society. Union Pacific later relented and the tunnel scheme was abandoned. It wasn't until Washington State Department of Transportation workers were building the Yakima Avenue bridge that they discovered that the tunnel had not been fully filled in and was being used by a handful of businesses for dumping of toxic chemicals.

What likely happened was that this actual tunnel spun into the urban legend of a larger tunnel used for sheltering Chinese people. The web of smaller tunnels around the city likely has a similar source. The Consumer Central Heating Co. was based along Dock Street and provided many of the downtown business buildings and hotels with steam heat. The system required crawl-space-sized tunnels to web throughout the city to move the steam from the waterfront steam plant to the buildings several blocks up the hillside. The system operated for more than 50 years and only closed down in 1979 when buildings shifted to having their own air conditioning systems. The tunnels were never removed and are only filled in when construction crews come across them on a construction site. Such was the case during the road work along Pacific Avenue.

Phyllis Harrison, owner of the Art Stop on Broadway, has done some extensive research on the subject of these “Chinese tunnels” and found that the stories remain largely the same, but the details change over time and reflect the time in society when they were told. She wrote several papers and magazine articles about the phenomenon. In one article, she points out that the first written accounts of the tunnels she could find dated to the 1930s, well after the tunnels had been reportedly built.

Sources:
Steve Dunkelberger.


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