The Tunnels of Moose Jaw

18 Main Street North

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

July 23, 2000

 

Every once in awhile as we travel, I deliberately try to pick a small town with nothing to do so that we can catch up on what we have back-logged to be written. Such was the case (I thought) with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. I saw something in a brochure about the tunnels of Moose Jaw but thought little more about it, until we had gotten settled in our campsite. The next day after we got in, we had decided we would take the local trolley around town to see what was available. Unfortunately it started to rain, so we decided we would check out "The Tunnels of Moose Jaw". What I had pictured as simply a walking tour of some holes in the ground turned out to be some of the most delightful couple of hours we had spent in a long time. We found out that originally all of the downtown buildings in Moose Jaw had been heated by steam heat, which was controlled by coal fueled boilers located underground. The engineers that maintained the boilers decided that it would be much easier for them to check on the boilers if they didn't have to return to the surface when they went from one to the other. So, they were instrumental in getting tunnels built from boiler to boiler. As a result the town became crisscrossed with a series of underground tunnels. But this was just the beginning. Later, as a great influx of Chinese immigrants began coming to Canada (some legal and some illegal) the money-lenders sold their services to local entrepreneurs in order for them to pay off the money loaned them to make the passage to Canada to "make their fortunes". There was strong public sentiment against these "foreigners" and the businessmen found out that if they were able to keep them out of sight, the public and the authorities didn't seem to care. So what they did was enlarge the tunnels that were already there from the steam boilers. As a result the immigrants lived in terrible conditions. Because of the fact that the fare to North America was so high, they were usually only able to afford fare for themselves, promising their families left in China that they would send for them as soon as they could. Unfortunately due to the poor conditions, and even poorer pay, for some of these men, as soon as they could became many, many years. With some of them never able to send for their families. The men usually worked in laundries, or burlap factories, or if they were lucky for some enterprising Chinese who had been fortunate to open his own restaurant and would employ them. If they worked in the laundry, their days consisted of 12-16 hrs of work, laundering clothes. Their sleeping quarters were adjacent to the laundry, all underground, as well as their eating and living quarters. Some of these men might spend weeks, never getting to the surface to see the sunshine. However, they worked and saved every penny they could to realize a dream.
The first tour (there are two) was called "Passage to Fortune". We were led underground by a young lady, named Delise, dressed in a period costume and trying to relay to the group, how very difficult the lives of the Chinese immigrants were back in the 1880s. We were then turned over to Dawson. He represented one of the engineers who would have maintained the boilers, as well as working for the local laundry boss. He really got into his role and yelled at our group as though we were a group of incoming "coolies" as the Chinese were called in that time. While I'm sure it would be impossible to understand how this men must have felt being in a strange country, barely able to speak the language, it was intimidating none the less. As we were taken to Mr. Burroughs, the laundry owner, (who was by the way an excellent example of animatronics) we were again berated and threatened. After we left there we were taken to the laundry area. As we went through one of the tunnels we noticed what appeared to be fog. Our guide explained to us that it was a special effect emulating fog and was done by using gelatin to make steam. It was very eerie,but portrayed how the tunnels might have looked with the steam and/fog rolling through. Then we arrived at the laundry area. It was a very small area, consisting of wash tubs, sewing machines, and ironing boards. In an adjacent area, only slightly partitioned off from the work area, was the cooking, eating, and sleeping area for the workers. In another room, there were tables that they could use for past times; such as gambling.
Mai-Jong and Fan-tan were favorites of the time. Unfortunately one thing that the immigrants brought with them from China was an addiction to Opium, which they used to help them deal with the loneliness, and physical and mental pains they had. The wages for the Chinese workers were sometimes as low as 50 a day, some of which was paid back to the employer for their room and board. Next we were shown into the burlap factory. The workers who worked very hard at the laundry could hope to move up to the burlap factory. Here, they were paid better and the work was not as difficult. Our guide then explained that there were so many Chinese immigrants to Canada that the government finally put a tax on Chinese immigrants. From 1885 to 1923 the Canadian Government made over $23 million on the immigration tax. After everyone in our group made their appearance before the immigrations officer and paid him his tax, we were moved along the tunnels to the exit and found ourselves back in the lobby where we had begun.
To start our next tour "The Chicago Connection" we had go across the street and up to the second floor of a building
which currently houses an art gallery. When the time came for our tour a young lady dressed in the attire of a flapper of the Al Capone era came out and addressed the crowd. She told us her name was "Fanny" and that she was taking us into her place (a speakeasy) since we were customers who had come to buy alcohol from "Big Al" (meaning Al Capone). It seems that when things got too hot in Chicago during the prohibition days, Al Capone would go up to Moose Jaw and lay low for awhile. As we entered the speakeasy there was a animatronic piano player and bartender. As Fanny was showing us around, she took us into the next room which was "Big Al's" when he was in town. While we were in his rooms, the phone rang and Fanny got real excited. She said that "Big Al" was on his way and we had to get out of there fast. She then opened a secret panel which led to some stairs leading downwards. When we got to the bottom of the stairs we were to knock on the door and give a secret code. By this time the group we were in started to get into the acting. The first person down knocked on the door and it came open so fast, one poor lady let out a shriek. The guy opened the door holding a tommy-gun. Walked up and down and looked us over. He made some remark to almost every person and pretty soon some (including myself) were making comments back. Pretty soon it was really starting to rock and roll with the people in the group really hasseling the actors. Well, our first guy decided it was getting "too hot" for him there and passed us on to the fellow who brewed the alcohol. He started giving us his hints and tips for "aging" the alcohol quickly. Then he passed us along to a very nervous-type bookkeeper. The actor was really good. I thought the poor man was going to have a heart attack right there on the spot. Finally he decided he'd better take all the paperwork and make his getaway, but he had to take us along with him so there were no witnesses. At least he didn't decide to wipe us all out. As we were led this way and that through the tunnels we found ourselves coming out, once again, to the lobby of the original building. The two tours were really a lot of fun as well as informative. If you're ever in the area be sure and stop in and visit "The Tunnels of MooseJaw." If you would like more information on them, visit their website at: http://www.TunnelsOfMooseJaw.com.

Good Luck! Have Fun! and Stay Safe!

Laura