25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America! (Post #4)


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.

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Modern day basement entrance
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Old frame of basement entrance that has been sealed up

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.

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Photo from “Notorious Two-Bit Street” book
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Photo from “Notorious Two-Bit Street” book

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.

 

 

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25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America! (Post #3)


Touring the 25th street basements was very interesting to say the least!  Some of the basements floors had been concreted, others were still dirt. Some were lit up with storage and others were nearly pitch black and very eerie. Something that every single basement had in common was the obvious sealed entrance openings. Some openings were sealed with concrete, others with brick. They were of all different shapes and sizes. Almost every business had an entrance that would be facing the opposite side of the street, which would mean if there was a tunnel; it would be going from underneath 25th street from one business to the other. There were also East and West entrances that looked to have led to the business directly next door or potentially the range of the entire street.

The businesses on the north side of the street that had sealed entrances going towards the back of the establishment would be consistent with that area being known to have lead to Electric Alley and possibly other parts of the City. Electric Alley began in 1893 and was a space of cribs and brothels run behind the north side buildings on a section of 25th street. The back of the 2nd and 3rd floors of these buildings were also used as cribs. For those who are local, this area is where the large parking lot is for the Marriott Hotel. Around 1915, law enforcement cracked down on Electric Alley, but this only drove it underground and to more rooms in the 25th street buildings.  Something that was clear as day was that many of the basements, if not all at one point, were definitely connected from neighboring business to business.

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You can see that this opening was arched at the top.

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In one of the basements that I toured, there was a slightly above ground level door that was not sealed up and if you went in it, there was a open space between the businesses and an entrance that led to the basement of the neighboring business. The entry to the neighboring business was sealed with wood, but you could see the light from the basement coming through the wood panels. This entry shows that the businesses were in fact connected. There was also evidence in the area between the two businesses of past dwelling and/or activity. In most of the businesses that I toured, this same type of opening was completely sealed up. This specific entrance is not a full blown tunnel, but proves that there were definite connections from business to business.

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Entrance to next door business
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Another angle of the entrance door
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The photo above captions the space between the two businesses that could have been used for an array of illegal activity from gambling to opium dens. Here you can also see the light coming through from the next door business through the cracks in the wood paneling.

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Neighboring business entrance in the basement of the Gift House that they boarded up.

My most interesting find from the underground excursions was an abandoned boiler that had the date of 1891 printed on it.

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In another establishment, we were shown a marine jail that the bar above used to use to stick the out of control marines to sober them up till morning.

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Walkway to Marine Jail
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Entrance to marine jail
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Marine Jail
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Side of jail
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Memorabilia in basement

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Coal room
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This is a sealed space facing the street in the basement of the Gift House. The owner thought it was used as street vent or coal shoot before the renovation of the street and sidewalks.

To be continued ….

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25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America! (Post #2)


25th Street Photo project

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.

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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.

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Opium Den

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

 

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25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America! (Post #1)


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25th Street and Union Station Today

Anyone who has grown up in Ogden, Utah is familiar with the scandalous history of 25th street and the notorious myths and legends of the “secret” tunnels and underground spaces that line it. For most people, this is all it amounts to. No one living really knows if the tunnels ever really existed, or how true the stories of 25th street’s underground world really are. There is no hard evidence, no actual tunnels that have ever been known to be discovered, unveiled and presented to the community. But the legends still live on strong. So as a lifelong citizen of Ogden, I went out to seek these answers for myself, hoping to find at least some form of more solid information.

Reading about the history is great, but I found that most books about the street don’t say much of anything about the physical underground world or tunnels. So I went a step further and tried to find some of these answers on my own.  I decided I needed to go where many people have never gone – into the places where the supposed legends and mysteries all began- the actual basements and underground spaces that line underneath the businesses of modern day 25th street.  I was very fortunate to have many kind business owners allow me to tour these underground spaces in hopes to find some real answers of what is left of the historic world and what really happened during the time that 25th street was known as the most sinful towns in America.

Setting the scene:

Ogden’s days of being a small, quiet Mormon town all changed the moment it was chosen to be the Junction City for the first ever railroad to join the East Coast with the West about 40 miles northwest of it in 1869.  After this, Ogden was flooded with all kinds of people who came with the railroad; including travelers, soldiers, rail workers and a huge proportion of immigrants.

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Meeting of the First Transcontinental Railroad

Within a year of the Union of the railroads, Ogden’s population had doubled and consistently grew.  By 1890, one out of every 3 or 4 residents in the county was an immigrant from another country.  It seemed nearly overnight the unknown prairie town of Ogden was transformed into a melting pot cosmopolitan meca, not only connecting the country in a capacity that it had never been before, but the entire world.

Ogden’s grand Union Station sat as the throne of 25th street’s three blocks that rolled out in front of it. These three blocks quickly became a post for the traveler, offering all forms of services, from hotels and restaurants to saloons, gambling halls and brothels. 25th street boomed with all the people and influence going in and out, but soon became corrupt, unsafe and full of crime and illegal activity.   Eventually, 25th street formed a worldwide reputation as one of the most sinful towns in America and stayed that way for roughly a century following.  

Al Capone himself is to have said that Ogden was too wild a town for even him. Ogden has actually been said to have been a major influence for the famous Las Vegas Strip.  Rick Vanleeuwen, owner of today’s 25th street’s Gift House, recalled one of his shop patron’s memories of when he was a young G.I. in WWII and was given a pamphlet of places not to go during war time; 25th street was a headliner on the list.

With all the corruption and illegal activity going on in the lively Junction hub, the literal and figurative underground world of 25th street was formed. This is where the underground tunnels and world come into play. 

The glory days of 25th street lasted roughly 80 years, beginning in the late 1880’s to early 1900’s as a wild west town filled with opium dens. Murder was common and the major business of prostitution that last until the 1950’s arose. Later, when prohibition began in 1917, 25th street became even more exciting, especially due to the fact that Utah outlawed the sale of liquor two and a half years prior to nationwide prohibition. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, organized crime was rampant in Ogden and drove even more illegal business underground literally and figuratively.

In the 1950’s the city finally put a  major crackdown on the crime. With this and the major decline in the railroad passenger service, 25th street’s glory days quickly came to a halt.

By the 1960’s and 1970’s 25th the street was completely dead and the city planned to restore the street in the mid 1970’s.

To be continued …

25th Street, Ogden, Utah: The most sinful town in America,  Post #2

 

 

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Ogden, Utah USA – My hometown in all its glory!


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Historic 25th Street, Ogden, Utah

After extensively traveling Europe for the past 6 years and focusing my blog specifically on European travel, I am finally taking some time out to write about something very close to my heart – my hometown. I have lived in Ogden City, Utah, U.S.A my whole life and I truly believe that it is one of the most amazing places in the World.  I have traveled far and wide seeking out amazing things, but every time I come home from my travels, I am that much more convinced that my home state and city is just as amazing, if not more amazing than any place I’ve traveled -Why you ask? Well, it’s kind of hard to miss the obvious reason; the gigantic mountains that are literally sitting in all of our backyards, but Ogden is so much more than that. Ogden’s vibrant history and specifically downtown Ogden’s historic 25th street’s history is a history that is worth telling and one that I am dying to share with my international, national and local followers.

Many people only hear about or have a great desire to visit the “historic” or trendy U.S. cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston or New York, but some cities in the U.S. such as Ogden are only recently having light shed on them and becoming more known for how amazing they truly are. After all, Utah was the host of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games with Ogden City and the surrounding area hosting several events. In my travel blog, I have taken great pride in shining light on places that most travelers don’t think to go when planning a trip to Europe. Whether it be a  unknown fairy-tale town in Belgium or Czech Republic, to a amazing restaurant in the non-touristy area of Rome, I hope to give Ogden the same well-deserved recognition it deserves because I truly feel that Ogden is a hidden gem.

So with this said, I have put my European posts momentarily on hold due to an amazing opportunity I have received to do a guest post series for Ogden’s Historic 25th Street website. In this series, I will be focusing primarily on the fascinating underground tunnels and world of Ogden’s Historic 25th street during the time it was known as one of the most decadent towns in America.

 

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