So are the tunnels real?
Rick Vanleeuwen, family owner of 25th Street’s Gift House reported to me that as a child he crawled around and explored when many buildings were abandoned on 25th Street in the 60’s and 70’s and he never found anything tunneling. He also noted that when the city redid the sidewalks and utilities in the 80’s, none of the excavations showed proof of any actual tunnels. Vanleeuwen believes that the sealed off “tunnel” openings are from when many of the businesses had underground basement entrances in the front or the back (facing north and south.) He basis his theory on the fact that when he dug around the openings of the lots that his family had bought on 25th, there were buried stairs that looked to be used when the business was underground at the time. Some of the businesses to this day have below ground entrances in the front and back, but most of them don’t anymore. But this still does not explain the East and West entrance openings.
Vanleeuwen reported that he knows many neighboring business basements are in fact connected to each other, but as far as full blown tunnels there has just never been any real evidence to convince him.“Show me a tunnel and I’ll believe it.” Even with that statement, he still says “Who’s to say they don’t exist, no one really knows for sure.”
Author Val Holley’s reported on his research of the subject of the tunnels in his book 25th Street Confidential,
“People believe there are tunnels, and no matter what you say, they still believe there are,” observes city planner Greg Montgomery.” During the reconstruction of 25th Street in the late 1970s, we dug up and replaced all the utilities and the sidewalks. There were no tunnels full-length of the street.” What most old buildings along the street did have were basements and storage spaces underneath the side-walks. Portions of the walls were removed to allow passage from one underground warehouse to another. “If you stood underground and saw connecting passageways, your perception would be that there were tunnels,” explains Montgomery.
George Pappas Jr., owner of seven buildings from The Gift House to the Lighthouse Lounge on the north side of the 100 block, showed a visitor the basements underneath his properties, all of which connect. “No other owner on 25th Street has as many contiguous building as I do,” Pappas notes. “My basements connect, but there aren’t any tunnels.”
I contacted Holley regarding further information and opinions he had regarding the tunnels in his research for his book,
“The only thing I can add in addition to what’s in the book is that no other historian can have had the broad immersion in 19th and 20th century Ogden newspapers that I chalked up while I was researching. I did not find a single article or even a mention of tunnels. No article about police raids, or opium dens, or the like, ever used the word “tunnel.” No Ogden reporter in those days wrote a word about such things. The obsession only coalesced after the glory days were over and anyone who could have talked sense was dead. In my book I did not see the need to belabor the point that I personally think tunnels are nonsense.”
Holley further noted in his book,
“The basement’s role in a colorful 1917 grand-jury investigation may be one of several possible smoking guns that fostered rumors of the mysterious subterranean passageways.”
I asked him to clarify this statement,
“The important thing to remember is that when this grand jury made its investigation, selling alcohol was still perfectly legal in Utah. True, the state legislature had just prohibited it through a new amendment to Utah’s constitution, but that would not go into effect until Aug. 1, 1917. The infraction was for selling without a license. You’ve got to wonder how much the license cost and whether being fined and jailed might have been worth whatever money was saved.
In any case, Denny Smyth and his hotel clerk were operating a speakeasy-like establishment before speakeasies were necessary. The idea of pushing a secret button to let suitable customers into a secret basement to buy liquor must have really tickled the public imagination. It was just a basement. Not a tunnel. I don’t know for sure, of course, whether this fact situation gave rise to rumors of tunnels, but all the necessary elements for rumors to kindle were there.”
Richard Selcer, chronicler of the old Hell’s Half Acre district in Fort Worth, Texas, observed, “What is ‘known’ today…is about two-thirds myth…The problem with getting to the historic root is that the historical viewpoint languishes while the mythology is self-perpetuating.” Holley notes Selcer’s words could have been written about Ogden’s mistaken ideas of 25th Street’s past.
In another book entitled “Notorious Two-Bit Street,” author Lyle Barnes determined that based on his investigations, the tunnels were real and that some still do exist. He notes in his book that Maurice Richards, who was the Weber County Attorney during the 1950’s and who later became a Judge, had various underground tours by several Chiefs who were much older than he and had been on the street for a long time. They all explained to Richards that after the railroad came through Ogden, the Chinese laborers had a mafia that operated the underground world of Ogden and they lived, gambled, used opium, ate and died down underneath 25th street. He further notes in his book,
“…there are people alive today who claim that as youths they actually laid eyes on the basement door opening into the tunnels from various buildings along 25th street. Some recall using the tunnels to deliver newspapers when the weather was bad. Some tried to explore the legendary passages, heading in 100 or 200 feet until it was too dark to see any further- or in some instances, the tunnel collapsed in front of them.”
He also explains that many of the spaces under the sidewalks were connected and used for storage and delivery. During prohibition, they were used to quickly move illegal beverages between buildings before police raid occurred, or they simply led into a gambling room. However, he further notes that during the many construction projects conducted along 25th Street over the years, there’s been no evidence of interconnecting tunnels across the street – or any length of interconnected underground areas. Still, many people claim to have been in the tunnels personally. The 1981 construction projects defiantly helped in keeping the legends alive as they exposed several cemented shut openings but they also lowered the credibility by not exposing any full blown tunnels. He notes there are those that say the tunnels extend the distance of the three full blocks and other that claim that they extend to other locations in the city beyond 25th street.
One of our business tour guides reported to have found several coins in the dirt basement floor dating from the 20’s and 30’s. I can just imagine if the city funded a archaeologist group to research these spaces, the amazing things that could be uncovered. There is no denying the fact that many basements were connected for a reason and I’m sure it had to do with prohibition. The proof is present to this day. After touring these spaces, I honestly couldn’t understand how one could not believe that at least some sort of tunneling or at least underground world existed. To me, it was pretty obvious. The question is, for what reason and at what time were all these openings sealed off? Why doesn’t anyone to this day have a solid answer as to if they are real or not? And why hasn’t anyone tried to actually find out?One consensus with everyone I talked with was that they all too were incredibly interested in what really lies beneath 25th street.
It is actually harder than I thought it would be to find answers on this subject. There is very little information on the internet or in books. My best guess was that any tunneling probably fell out of use in modern time and at least the street facing openings were perhaps sealed during the renovation of the street in the 80’s.
I have often thought the idea of opening the underground spaces of Ogden (whether full blown tunnels or not) would be a huge tourism draw and wondered why no one has done anything to pursue it. I actually found an article from 2001 that was focused on the mayor of Ogden at the time’s effort to explore the tunnels and restore them for tourism purpose. Obviously the idea didn’t live very long. Why did the mayor abandon his efforts to restore these tunnels? Was it just too large and expensive of a project? Did they have issue with business conflict or cooperation? Even if there really is not full blown tunnels, we at least know many businesses were connected at least for easy in and out access probably during prohibition. Those connected basements could be a huge tourism draw along with so many other things I encountered like the old boiler from the 1800’s and the marine jail. To me, it is a shame that Ogden doesn’t own this history. Even with no tunnel tour at all, a tour highlighting the amazing world of 25th street’s near century of national and world attention would be of value.
It seems when most people think today of the underground world of 25th, they automatically think of hauntings and ghost stories, but not much more than that. I can say from my personal experience in the basements, taking a photo was like a snow storm coming at my lens. The funny part was that the “orbs” didn’t really show up in the pictures. The lit, concreted, supply filled basements weren’t too creepy, it was the nearly pitch black unfinished dirt floor basements that looked liked like they did after the bootleggers packed up and left that were absolutely creepy.
In conclusion to this series, I feel that until there is a real city planner, archaeologist researcher or historian on board to try to uncover the legends, I don’t know if we’ll ever truly know the complete story of the existence of the 25th street tunnels. Even with the research, will we every truly know? Perhaps it better left unknown.