One of the strangest stories in 20th-century Canadian history is coming to light thanks to excavations under the streets of Moose Jaw.
For more than 75 years, city officials denied rumours of a network of tunnels located under this sleepy city, once one of the wildest frontier towns in the Canadian West.
Now part of the network has been restored and is open to tourists. Promoted as The Tunnels of Little Chicago, the underground maze has become the city’s most popular tourist attraction, with more than 100,000 visitors to date.
Local researchers have interviewed many of the city’s senior citizens to get at the long-hidden truth.
“All of the accounts agreed on the main points,” said Penny Eberle, who has been closely involved in the restoration project.
Eberle says work on the tunnels began in about 1908 after several Chinese railway workers were savagely beaten at the CPR railyards by whites who believed the Chinese were taking their jobs.
This was the time when Western Canada was gripped by hysteria about the “yellow peril,” and Ottawa imposed its infamous head tax on Chinese would-be immigrants.
Terrified and unable to pay the head tax, the Chinese workers literally went underground, digging secret tunnels where they could hide until the situation improved.
Evidence suggests the tunnels were used for many years. The railway workers managed to bring women to live with them and even raised children in rat-infested darkness.
Access to the tunnels was gained from the basements of buildings owned by legal Chinese immigrants. The underground residents would do work for above-ground laundries and restaurants and would obtain food and other supplies in payment.
Because the tunnels were built adjacent to heated basements, they were livable in winter.
The tunnels acquired a whole new purpose in the 1920s, when the United States and much of Canada embarked on Prohibition.
As a major CPR terminus linked to the United States by the Soo Line, Moose Jaw was ideally situated to become a bootlegging hub. The city’s remote location also made it a good place to escape U.S. police.
Moose Jaw became something of a gangsters’ resort, with regular visitors from the Chicago mob.
“They came to lay in the sun,” says Laurence (Moon) Mullin, an 89-year-old Moose Jaw resident, who worked as a messenger in the tunnels as an 11-year-old boy.
It didn’t hurt that the entire local police force, including Chief Walter Johnson, was in cahoots with the bootleggers. Local historians say Johnson ran Moose Jaw like a personal fiefdom for 20 years, and even the mayor dared not interfere.
Mullin liked the bootleggers who frequently paid five cents rather than four, the official price, for the newspapers he sold on a downtown corner.
The tunnels were used for gambling, prostitution and warehousing illegal booze. Mullin says one tunnel went right under the CPR station and opened into a shed in the rail yards. It was possible to load and unload rail cars without any risk of being seen by unfriendly eyes.
Mullin says that Chief Johnson would occasionally stop by his newspaper stand. As Johnson paid his nickel he would whisper into Mullin’s ear: “There’s going to be a big storm tonight.”
Mullin knew what those words meant: an imminent raid by Allen Hawkes of the Saskatchewan Liquor Commission, who did not share Johnson’s tolerant attitudes.
The boy would rush to a hidden door under the Exchange Cafe, give a secret knock, run down a tunnel to a second door, and knock again. There he would be admitted to a room full of gamblers.
“The smoke was so thick you could have cut it with a sharp knife and brought it out in squares,” he says, chuckling. “But everyone seemed quite comfortable.”
Some say the bootleggers strong-armed the Chinese to take over the tunnels, but Mullin denies this. He says the Chinese and bootleggers worked together.
There are anecdotes about Al Capone himself. Moose Jaw resident Nancy Gray has written that her late father Bill Beamish, a barber, was called to the tunnels several times to cut Capone’s hair.
Mullin says he never saw Capone but did meet Diamond Jim Brady, whom he describes as Capone’s right-hand man.
He says Brady was always impeccably dressed in a grey suit and liked to show off the gun he wore under his armpit; the diamonds embedded in his front teeth sparkled when he smiled.
Mullin says he and the other messenger boys got 20 cents for every errand. The gangsters didn’t allow them to touch booze but taught them how to play poker.
“The best teachers I had in this world were those men that weren’t supposed to be any good.”
The boys held Brady in special awe: “He’d always tell us to stay on the straight and narrow. He had eyes just like a reptile and when he looked at you he almost paralysed you. I think he was absolutely fearless.”
Mullin says some rotgut whisky was made in Saskatchewan but all the good stuff came from the Bronfman distillery in Montreal.
As recently as the 1970s local officials denied the existence of the tunnels, but the denials became difficult to maintain when part of Main Street collapsed, leaving an unsuspecting motorist planted in a deep hole.
“I always said some day a truck is going to break through, and it did,” Mullin says. Guided tours of the tunnels begin daily at the Souvenir Shop, 108 Main St. N. in downtown Moose Jaw. Tours last 45 minutes and cost $7 for adults. Senior, student and child rates, as well as group rates, also offered. Wheelchair access not available. Information: (306) 693-5261