Tunnels, tunnels everywhere… sort of

Tacoma has a long tradition of having “Chinese tunnels” lying under its streets like some clandestine web of smuggling and other acts of wrongdoing during the “wild West” days of its history.

These matters of more urban legend than cold facts center on the idea that tunnels around the city’s waterfront were used to either 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. Rumors about them are almost as old as the city itself. 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 which they were told than about historical events. Theories abound. Evidence does not.

“There are some tunnels around Tacoma, that is verifiable,” Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg said, noting that China Lake Park is said to have been the location of a mouth to one of these tunnels. “I have never seen it, but that is what is claimed.”

Tacoma Public Library’s repository of such matters, in fact, does contain a mention that the marshy lake west of State Route 16 near South 19th Street was given the name China Lake reportedly because it was a site of a “Tacoma Tunnel” that had allegedly been dug by Chinese workers before they were forcibly expelled in 1885 in an act that gained national headlines as the “Tacoma Method” of removing Chinese railway workers after the tracks were laid.

The purpose or even the location of the tunnel has since been lost to history, but the tale survives. San Francisco and other port cities on the West Coast have similar stories, and they roughly follow the same storyline. 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. 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 pass out one night in a bar in Seattle or Tacoma and wake up on a ship bound for Shanghai.

The Tacoma version of the story generally involves the bars on 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 Ave. 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 myth behind its tunnels has some factual 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 something they described as a tunnel a short time later. The story made the newspaper and has been cited several times as proof the Shanghai tunnels existed, although no formal excavation was made.

Given that kernel of truth, urban story telling takes over. 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. Some newspaper clippings found in Tacoma Library’s Northwest Room files even mention first-hand accounts of these tunnels and describe them as having rows and rows of bunk beds used by the fleeing Chinese.

Such a massive tunnel would not only have taken hundreds of workers years to build, but seems impractical since anyone who wanted to shelter Chinese families after the expulsion could have used the cover of darkness as their underground railroad rather than a massive tunnel.

But yet the “Chinese tunnels” rumors persist. And there actually is a tunnel from Tacoma to what is now Fircrest that could fit the bill if someone used their imagination. The tunnel, however, was built for the Northern Pacific Railroad Co., which sought a way 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. Railroad officials set out instead 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 unfinished tunnel was abandoned. It was not until Washington State Department of Transportation workers were building the Yakima Avenue bridge in 1961 that they discovered that the tunnel had not been fully filled in and was being used by a handful of businesses for dumping of junk and toxic chemicals. Had some of that junk included furniture like beds, the first-hand accounts make sense. The Nalley Valley was home to several furniture makers after all.

And as for the tunnels downtown? Well, they actually exist as well. The Consumer Central Heating Co. was based along Dock Street around the turn of the last century and provided many of the downtown business buildings and hotels with steam heat. Lacking steel pipes used today, the system required crawl-space-sized tunnels to send the steam from the plant to places throughout the city. 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 crews come across them on a construction site.

The recent resurrection of the “Chinese tunnel” stories can, therefore, be explained by the recent round of renovations of historical buildings that uncovered them.

Separating fact and fiction is tough when fiction makes a better story, but what is known is that, yes, the city’s downtown has a web of tunnels under its streets. The purpose of those tunnels that have been researched can be explained as being steam tunnels. And there is, or at least was, a tunnel from downtown to the suburbs, but it was a route for trains, not fleeing Chinese or vagabond smugglers.

But that does not stop people from looking.

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