GCP 51: History with Steve - Tacoma's Shanghai Tunnels
Episode 51: History with Steve – Tacoma's Shanghai Tunnels
This episode is another great Tacoma history story with Steve Dunkelberger. We talk about Tacoma’s Shanghai Tunnels, one of the most discussed topics in Tacoma’s history.
(This part of the show notes were provided by Steve Dunkelberger)
The legend of the “tunnels” under Tacoma ranks up there among some of the most persistent urban myths of Tacoma. 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 or out of 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.
The fact that tunnels exist around the city existed is well documented. Many still exist. 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 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. Some say the tunnels were simply part of the old cellar that had not been filled in before buildings were constructed nearby or just part of the city's steam-heating system that ran around the city.
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 to a 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.
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 had 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. But that won’t stop the retelling of a great urban legend.
There are problems with the "Chinese tunnels” story, however. A tunnel like that would take years to dig and would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The train-building Chinese had neither the time nor the money.
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 have used boats. There was no need to dig a massive tunnel.
But this idea of a tunnel from Tacoma to Fircrest 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.
The idea that the gentlemen of the day would have built a tunnel to avoid being seen going into a brothel by their fellow gents is also absurd. Tacoma was flush with brothels. They were located in buildings that were owned by judges, cops and tycoons of the age. They didn't have to hide since everyone with money was visiting them. It was more likely that they would see their business partners in the brothel parlors drinking champagne when they walked through the door. The idea of digging a tunnel just to avoid Prohibition laws against drinking is equally illogical. No cop in Tacoma would risk losing his badge by busting a business tycoon for seeking a shot of whiskey. No one cared. Speakeasies were well known spots. People knew where to go and cops knew what blocks to miss on their patrols.
Now, all that said, both Seattle and Portland have underground tours boasting "secret tunnels.” They are both great tours. But they too, lack the historical "smoking gun" to shine much light on the mysterious Shanghai tunnels of their cities.
After Steve’s reading, they ponder on whether there is truth behind the myth of the tunnels and other tunnels that may have ran through Tacoma. The discussion then turns to brothels in Tacoma and in Nevada. They also discuss “super cali fragilistic expialidocious” and its ambiguous historical meaning. It’s rumored the original term was used by the Youcon gold miners, 100 years before the show, to order the “full meal deal” at the brothels.
They finish up the show discussing what Steve has been up to. He’s still working on his history book that will be coming out before the holidays. Also the upcoming screening of The Eyes of the Totem at the Rialto TheaterSeptember 18th.
Thank you Steve for joining us for another great Tacoma History lesson. We look forward to your next history pod cast!!
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