I quickly learned in my research that there are a ton of conflicting views, opinions and stories associated with the underground tunnels and historic world of 25th street. It seemed the more information I found and the more people I talked to, the more unclear everything seemed to be and the more questions I had. Digging for answers to the past is like digging a never-ending hole; it can get frustrating to say the least.
Some people say the tunnels are simply folklore or “Urban legends” and have never really existed. Other reports state that they or their family members actually worked or lived in them and that they were heavily used for decades. If one did believe they existed, there were just as many conflicting stories as to why they were originally created, what they were used for and who built the tunnels to begin with.
There is also controversy as to whether they extend the full portion of the street, go further throughout the city or are just sections here and there. Some of the stories I have heard as to why the tunnels were originally created range from as simple as connecting the heating and cooling for the street, to being a creation of the bootleggers during prohibition. I personally think there were many uses for the tunnels over the years, from the simplest being to help businesses transport goods more easily, to aiding illegal activity during bootlegging times. It seems the most popular belief is that they were a creation of the bootleggers.
I think the most accurate story of the original creation of the tunnels was long before bootlegging times. Chinese rail workers followed the railroad and had much experience in building tunneling, as they spent months blowing a railroad path through Sierra, Nevada. When they came to Ogden, they are thought by many to have originally constructed the underground tunnels sometime between 1870 and 1890.
It is most commonly believed that the reason they created these tunnels was for use of “hidden” opium dens. I have also read that the Chinese were quite discriminated against when arriving in Ogden, which in turn made it difficult for them to find housing. I think what could have happened, was that they used the existing basements of some of their friends 25th street businesses to carve out tunnels or large niches to form housing. They could have just used the basements themselves for living quarters, or the connecting spaces in between the businesses but never actually built full blown tunnels.
The Chinese brought opium with them to Ogden as this was a commonly used substance in their culture. I think this drug was more like alcohol for the Chinese; something to relax them, more of a cultural thing, but when it later spread to the general population of Ogden, that’s when the abuse, addiction and distribution became an enormous problem.
I think the Chinese realized that they could make extra money or even a living by selling this foreign drug to the people and travelers of Ogden. An opium den is defined as a place where opium is sold and smoked, but I don’t think it was until later after the Chinese had established their homes in the caves that they were actively selling. In turn, these dwellings became known as “hidden” or “secret” opium dens due to law enforcement later passing laws against the use of the foreign drug.
This theory makes more sense to me than the original idea that the Chinese came in and automatically made secret drug dens. Why would they try to be so secret if it wasn’t even against the law at the time and no one had really ever heard of opium? I actually think these tunnels could have already been somewhat in place prior to the Chinese for transport of goods from business to business, and the Chinese could have only expanded them or cut out other areas or niches for their homes. It’s hard to say, because some of the businesses were not built until the early 1900’s so there could have been niches in basement walls or small dirt tunnels that could never been found because they were closed in over time long after the Chinese left.
When talking with Rick Vanleeuwen, owner of 25th street’s the Gift House, he noted that when the city redid the streets in the 80’s they found a small square dirt room that could have been used as a den. This was located right between his store and the restaurant next to them.
These supposed tunnels or connecting basements could have been somewhat abandoned and perhaps only used for storage or transport of goods once the Chinese rail works left until they were again put to use during the time of prohibition in the 20’s and 30’s. During this time, they were known to be used for all sorts of illegal activity including speakeasies, gambling halls, prostitution and even prisoners. The tunnels provided easy access and escape when police raided the above ground businesses.
To be continued …
25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America! Post #3