Fresno Chinatown's Underground Tunnels:
A maze and sometimes amazing
By David Owens
Every big city has an active underground network and Fresno is no exception. Over the past 20 years that I've wandered around Chinatown I have met and talked to a number of older residents who grew up in Chinatown Their observations are the source for much of this report. As a child I explored the mythic Chinese tunnels in Boise, Idaho and later visited older cities of the West and learned a little about the underground architecture and networks created as cities develop.
Fresno's urban legends about underground criminals, brothels, opium dens and stories of ghosts wandering underground persist, especially among new comers to the area. Old timers just laugh. Usually it was not so exciting. But the truth is fascinating and there is a lot of history underneath our feet. Just about every good or bad vice you can imagine has happened at least once in Fresno's underground. Each basement and passage had a purpose, and after 135 years most are long forgotten.
The first Chinese who came to the Fresno area came looking for Gold Mountain, mining the rivers and dry creeks for loose gold to take home to China. They came before the railroads and they had settlements along the "sinks of Dry Creek" when the railroad came through and named a new stop "Fresno."
As the gold dreams played out, Chinese workers came to work on railroads and created other businesses such as laundries, saloons, stores and a small community grew. In Fresno the community was on the West Side, the area west of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. The first buildings were made of wood. It was customary to dig cellars and basements to store things and to escape the dry heat of Fresno. Outside steps to them were built. Sometimes passageways were dug between them in the hard-pan dirt of Fresno to afford easy access to the neighbors. Sometimes a business expanded and wanted easy passage, and sometimes they were built for a quick escape from assailants.
The Chinese were not embraced as citizens when they first arrived and there are many recorded instances of abusive treatment and false accusations. The ability to duck into a basement and come out in the alley was a matter of survival.
Fresno's Chinatown before World War II sported the most vibrant nightlife in Fresno. If you wanted a night out on the town, a drink, a meal, a gamble, a dance or to meet a girl, you went to Chinatown. Restaurants operated 24 hours a day, as did the gambling houses. China Alley, behind modern day Central Fish, was particularly active. There was a business doorway every 12 feet and often more businesses behind or below them. Numbers and lottery games were available at many establishments. This lasted until the late 1950s as "anti-suspender laws" and the redevelopment of the 1960s took hold and displaced long-time residents and businesses.
One of the persistent notions in Chinatown during its boom was that if someone was murdered in Chinatown, there would be no investigation. What happened in Chinatown stayed in Chinatown. The mayor, city councilors, policemen and respectable business people could enjoy a little vice before going home on the other side of the tracks. Respectable North Fresno came to Chinatown to play on the West Side.
And yes, anything could and probably did happen underground and out of sight. Competing Tongs, Chinese labor organizations, often fought over work for their members and underground access points became ways to escape. Tong antagonisms existed in China and overflowed into the new communities. There are several newspaper reports about Tong conflicts in the 1920s in Chinatown, but even the newspaper reported very little on the activities of Chinatown.
Wood buildings of the 1800s slowly gave way to permanent brick buildings. The first water works in Fresno was in Chinatown and business flourished. Many existing brick buildings were built 1905-1920. Records of the previous wood buildings is sketchy. Even more so for tents. Most burned or fell down.
Brick buildings needed concrete foundations. The wood buildings had none. Concrete was poured, window wells formed, concrete steps replaced wooden steps. Wooden cellar hatches and sidewalks were replaced with concrete and rectangles of glass (Sodium glass that turned purple in the sun) were embedded in the concrete over the stairways to let sunlight into the basements. Over the years it was cheaper to throw out the purple glass in favor of cheap concrete and the old steps and window sills were hidden. Electric lights replaced the advantage of filtered sunlight in the basements.
Every 20-30 years the City of Fresno would have to dig up sidewalks and pour new concrete. Old window sills often became sink holes in the sidewalks. The sills were bricked over in the basements and they were gone for good. The same for many stairwells. Some basements were even floored over as air conditioners replaced the need to hide from the heat.
The first building to get centralized air conditioning in the Fresno area was the Peacock Department Store on F Street. It still exists behind the old shoe shine shop of the owner has not hauled it away. Amazingly, I was able to put it into service fora while in the 1990s. It used a coil of cool water as part of the engineering and it actually wasted quite a bit of water.
What is left to see on the sidewalks are service elevators or access points, usually metal hatches in the sidewalk locked from underneath.. They can be opened to lower supplies into the basement. One of the basement freight elevators under the sidewalk may still be in place in front of the former Komoto's Dept. Store.
Some of the basements were filled with dirt and rocks encapsulating stairwells and connecting passages only to be discovered decades later during excavations. The city of Fresno put in storm sewers and underground Fresno was laced with tunnels and pipes for various utilities. Drawings don't exist for the earliest water works created in Fresno's Chinatown, which adds to the surprises each time an area is excavated. Roads have been moved, widened, buildings have come and gone. All leaving traces below the surface.
Many of the older basements were constructed with red bricks and after 50 years or so the mortar started to sugar. The buildings would actually start to sink. Some tried to pour concrete on the inside to shore them up, but the better solution was to fill in the basement. As you walk around Chinatown you can look for buildings that may have sunk, indicating that they once had dirt or brick-lined basements.
Old architectural drawings of the Security bank Building show a rather large tunnel all the way under the railroad tracks to Chinatown. Water, sewage and storm sewers have all bisected and altered the underground scene.
Some local businesses needed underground access for very practical reasons.. The Del Monte Packing House dug a diagonal tunnel South across G Street so they could run a conveyor belt for their operation underground rather than cart products above ground.
What is left to discover today is mostly remnants of unused basements with a few passages, sealed window sills, sealed stairways that look like passages. And always the mysterious promise that maybe one of those sealed foundations covers one of the mysterious passages to an old gambling den or the escape route for the notorious characters of Chinatown.
Video: For the past few years there has been a resurgence of talk of the mysterious tunnels and efforts have been made to find the signs of the life underground of the past. This video some of the buildings in Chinatown and sheds some light on the walled up stairs, passages and window sills. The commentary is a bit exaggerated from my perspective, but fun to let the imagination run a bit.
USA Today had a pretty good article:
Update October 24, 2013
The High Speed Rail Project is doing some archaeological digging in Chinatown before more construction begins.
Update November 21, 2013
Interview with Kathi Omachi and Jeremy Brownstein of Chinatown Revitlization, Inc. about Fresno Chinatown Tunnels:
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Update February 18, 2014
High-Speed Rail Project instigates underground archaeology with digs in Chinatown. Adjoining basements doors below buildings acknowledged, no independent tunnels yet found.
For a collection of articles and posts about Fresno's Chinatown, see the Chinatown Fresno group
David loves old buildings and once owned the D'Italia Hotel, The Oberti building, and The Peacock building in Fresno's Chinatown. He now haunts the Azteca Theater and spends too much time along Fagan and China Alleys. He is always looking for people with stories from Chinatown and especially the Azteca Theater.