Tacoma’s First Underground Tour

My friend Jenya and I before embarking on the Underground Tour

I’m not one for tours. For the most part I like exploring things on my own, but when I saw Angela Jossy’s announcement of a ‘Once In A Lifetime Underground Tour of Tacoma’, I had to go. The Facebook page spoke of the legendary Shanghai Tunnels, the vaulted sidewalks, Old City Hall, and Never Never Land figures. For those who are unaware of some of these Tacoma legends, here’s a bit of background.

The Chinese Tunnels are among Tacoma’s oldest legends. Depending on who you’re talking to they were for literally shanghaiing unruly customers at shady bars, sending the unsuspecting patrons to the basement, through the tunnel and onto a ship down on the waterfront or they were for smuggling Chinese workers after their expulsion from Tacoma in 1885 or they were used as  opium dens. But as many stories as there are, there is a distinct lack of evidence of these tunnels.

Old City Hall is one of Tacoma’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. Sadly, due to a series of unfortunate events, Old City Hall is now vacant and in some areas unsafe. It’s future remains uncertain.

Walk the streets of downtown Tacoma and look down. Occasionally you’ll see thick opaque glass. These are the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. In other words, there’s something under that sidewalk.

And then there was Never Never Land. As a child I remembered going to Never Never Land at Pt. Defiance Park. There was a meandering trail through the woods where various figurines acted out parts from famous fairy tales. It was kind of cool but kind of creepy. Never Never Land closed many years ago and left behind empty areas along the trail where once stood Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. Recently even the trail was removed leaving almost no evidence that Never Never Land ever existed.

Given all of this, I was excited as hell to go on this tour. Unfortunately in the days leading up to the tour, Angela had to cancel the Old City Hall portion of the tour due to lack of cooperation from the current tenants. She also reminded people that any tunnels were long ago filled in and we’d only be seeing the entrance to one and that this was not going to be like the Seattle Underground Tours. None of this deterred me.

It turned out that Jenya, an old friend from high school who I hadn’t seen in years was also interested in going on the tour. We met up in the early afternoon to catch up and then headed downtown.

We were supposed to pick up tickets any time after 3:00pm at the Gritty City Gift Fair at 9th and Broadway. We arrived at around 5:30pm. When we got there, the earliest group we could sign up for was 7:40pm. We met up with a couple of other friends and went to PSP (Puget Sound Pizza) for a couple drinks and some awesome pizza while we waited.

We came back at 7:30pm to find that the 7:20pm team was just now leaving. We wandered around the Gritty City Gift Fair. I ran into Kris Brannon otherwise known as Sonics Guy as well as ThanksGIVING founder Heidi Stoermer. I also saw Fingerprint Confection Owner, Clay Richart along with his wife who were selling their amazing caramels at the Fair. It was like a 5 Question Friday gathering.

A previous tour returned. We were told to grab the hard hats from them and be sure to sign the release form. I heard one returning person say that the tour was ‘underwhelming’. Not knowing this person, I had no idea what they expected it to be so this didn’t really bother me.

As the time crawled past 8pm, I became a bit concerned. Luckily the tour started a few minutes later. It turns out that two of the tour guides had gone home. One had hurt their ankle and the other, we were told, um, stepped in a puddle. The result was that Angela and another guide whose name I did not get were taking almost two tours worth of people at once to help get things caught up. We followed her down the hill to Pacific Avenue then took a left towards South 7th Street.

As we approached Meconi’s Pub, we were split into two groups. One went into Meconi’s. The other group (my group) was taken around the back of the building to find a man named Darryl who would show us where to go.

Around the back was an open door and Darryl. He led us to a spiral staircase covered in plastic sheeting that went down to the basement. In this basement, there were dozens of figurines. Every one of them creepier than I ever remember them being. The idea that at one point these were meant to entertain children is disturbing. That I was one of those children is even more bothersome.

Here are some photos of these almost forgotten relics:

Three Little Pigs

Big Bad Wolf

Assorted Characters

Ummm…

Past the figurines walking towards the direction of the street was a dark area where the flashlights were absolutely necessary. The stone floor was wet. There was thick glass above us in certain areas that I recognized as part of the sidewalk. These were the vaulted sidewalks of Tacoma. You can’t really see through the glass, but it was clear that if it was day, the sunlight would have provided at least a little illumination.

Vaulted Sidewalk

We walked back past the Never Never Land figures and up the stairs to switch places with the other group. Once inside Meconi’s we were led through a door, down another staircase to another vaulted sidewalk. This one had a substantial pool of water on the ground. I assumed this was the puddle that took out a previous tour guide. I walked through it with no problem.

Back in Meconi’s we walked through to the back of the bar where we went through another door and another staircase. Here there was a wall of brick and cement framed by a doorway. This we were told was once an entrance to a tunnel that went all the way to the docks.

In the 1880s, this area of Tacoma was full of illicit activities so a secret tunnel to the docks wasn’t even a little far fetched.

We left Meconi’s and head back up towards 9th and Broadway by way of the Spanish steps, near the old Elk’s Lodge that McMenamin’s has recently purchased and promised to turn into what might end up being one of the best night spots in Tacoma. It seemed fitting to end the tour through Tacoma’s past with a glimpse of what’s in Tacoma’s future.

The entire tour took about twenty minutes or so and if I had been expecting something out of Indiana Jones, I suppose I too would have been underwhelmed. As it was, I had a great time with my friends exploring forgotten bits of the City of Destiny. That to me was more than worth the $10 price of admission.

As a side note, Angela Jossy recently found out that they’re not destroying the vaulted sidewalks in January like she thought and there may yet be time for another round of Underground Tours for those who missed it this first time around. If she does, I’ll post that information on this article when I have it.

I’d like to publicly thank Angela Jossy and everyone else who helped her put on this tour.

– Jack Cameron

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7 responses to “Tacoma’s First Underground Tour

  1. And those are just a few of the downtown tunnels known to the public. Behind the Rock Pasta and pizza on Jefferson is a sidewalk with the glass laid into it. Underneath is the cold storage for the Rock. Another tunnel which not many know about begins in the electrical service area in the basement of the Washington building. That tunnel from what I hear goes for quite a distance. Then there are the other tunnels in the South Tacoma Way area and surrounding neighborhoods. And of course the public/private tunnels currently in use downtown, of which are better left to the imagination than to expound upon.

  2. I can’t wait till there’s another tour!

  3. Thanks for the write up and pictures of the Never Never land figurines. I miss that place.

  4. Anyone know if these tours are still happening? My grandfather used to regale me with stories of the Tacoma underground. He had mentioned lots of tunnels under pacific ave of which were quite occupied at the time (30’s – 50’s). He had mentioned getting his hair cut underneath the hotel Olympus and I’ve been able to substantiate that story with others ive found on the web.

    I’ve had the luxury of working in some of the downtown buildings. There is an old speakeasy underneath the redish building on 9th and pacific with a dirt pathway leading right under the street. You can see the pick-axe marks from whomever long ago cut the path as well as some old bathrooms and instructions written on an envelope on how to change out some brewery equipment.

    I would REALLY love to find the French drain under the Yakima ave bridge over pacific ave that leads to the abandoned rail road tunnel. According to a city document I found via a google search water slowly chewed away at the substandard fill fully excavating the tunnel underneath center and Jefferson.

    If anyone knows anything, please let me know!

  5. Oh, but never fear, legend takes over and lets Never Never Land live on. Enjoy some original lore about the place: http://papakali.com/the-less-told-tale-of-never-never-land/

  6. So much for the rumors about the abandoned railroad tunnel — somebody finally put together the real story http://groupssa.com/ssa/tacomatunnel.html
    But that doesn’t mean the other tunnels don’t exist …

  7. Ursula Sennett

    If you could please inform me of any further tours I’d be very interested in joining. Thank you for your time.

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