Tunnel Hunting

By on February 23, 2011

Jackson Hole, Wyo. – It’s dark down here. Dusty. And there’s just enough room, between floor and ceiling to crawl in a balled-up squat. The dust makes you sneeze. Ten minutes ago, you didn’t expect you’d be beneath the Wort Hotel, so you don’t have a flashlight and your cell phone’s puny light is barely enough to guide you, to see that the chamber you’re crawling through stretches right and left a good 25 feet, to see the outline of a square opening in the wall five feet in front of you.

 

You go on your hands and knees to avoid knocking your head on a pipe running parallel through the chamber, but you bump your head anyway, yelp a curse, and Steve Hitchcock, the Wort’s chief engineer, who’s patiently waiting back at the entrance to this chasm he escorted you to, asks if you’re all right.

Passing through the opening, you emerge into a second similar chamber that also stretches left and right, but you want to find a way forward because that’s where the rumors say you should be able to go, forward, towards and under the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar or the Cadillac.

You squirm through a hole cut in a wall of plastic sheeting that divides the room. The going is tough. And really dusty, and the dust is kind of suffocating. To your right, you see a patch of anemic light, streaming in from above ground. Looking to your left, you see old dust-encrusted bottles of Schlitz beer. You missed the party. The beers were drained decades ago.

Turning towards the light, you’re disappointed to find that it slips in through a small, crudy grate at the height of the three-and-a-half-foot tall chamber. The grate lets out into the dirty, trashcan-lined alley that bisects the block directly west of Town Square. It’s a dead-end. Another one.

You go back the way you came, trying not to grind your knees on the fist-sized stones buried in the dust, stopping to take a closer look at the derelict beer bottles, considering, as you crawl along, whether these chambers verify or condemn the persistent rumor that tunnels lie beneath some of Jackson’s Town Square businesses.

Over the course of several weeks, in a quest to prove or disprove the myth of Jackson’s tunnels, I was granted access to the basements of numerous downtown businesses and conducted dozens of interviews with business owners, employees and longtime residents. As many people as I talked to, I couldn’t pin down one person as the myth’s original author. I first heard of the rumor from this paper’s editor, Matthew Irwin, who told me he was shown a tunnel entrance in the basement of the Davies-Reid building while at a party there about 10 years ago.

The myth of Jackson’s tunnels varies depending on who’s doing the telling. Some, like the Cowboy’s engineer, Dale Petersen, say a tunnel runs from the Wort to either the Cowboy or the Cadillac and that gamblers used it back in the heyday of Jackson’s illegal gambling scene in the 1950s and ‘60s.

A lifelong Jackson resident with a few years under her belt told me, anonymously1, that she heard the tunnels were around during prohibition in the ‘20s. Presumably, they were used to store and run booze. Vickie Macfarlane said the tunnels predated prohibition. Others say tunnels served as underground passageways during the cold winter months, as is the case in super frigid cities; Montréal’s a good example. Tunnels are purported to lead from a number of other Town Square businesses, such as the Davies-Reid building or Coldwater Creek, to untold destinations.

A noble cause
The Wort was an early and the last stop on my tunnel quest. The first stop I made, however, was at the Jackson Hole Historical Society, to make sure I wasn’t barking up an empty tree in search of quarry some other journalist or writer had bagged long ago. I was surprised to learn none of the employees there had even heard the tunnel rumor. With the guidance of Historical Society staff, I poured through several promising books, examined wash-your-hands-before-you-touch-them historical documents and even took a trip back in time with the microfiche machine. Zero mention of subterranean passageways of any kind in any of those sources.
If the Historical Society staff didn’t know anything about the tunnels and there was no official record of them, then this was my chance to write a piece of Jackson Hole history. Finally, a JH Weekly article would find a place in the region’s historical annals.

Heading over to the Wort, I bumped into Hitchcock, who told me there were some tunnel-ish spaces under the motel that looked like they might lead to the Cadillac and in which a previous engineer stashed empty bottles of booze. Unfortunately, Hitchcock was busy setting up a furniture auction so he told me to return at a later date if I wanted to snoop around in the Wort’s basement.

Hoping to validate my editor, I went over to Davies-Reid. An employee there was bemused when I told him I was in search of tunnels. “If there were tunnels, there would probably be some record of them,” he said dismissively.

If you’re on the hunt for a vaguely “native” armoire or a coffee table engraved with tribal symbols, the Davies-Reid basement – which is open to the public – is the place to go, but not if you’re a tunnel hunter. I was told the tunnel entrance would be found in the south wall of the basement facing Deloney Ave., meaning the tunnel would ostensibly head towards and underneath Town Square. Try as I might, I couldn’t find one sign of an entranceway in the stuccoed basement walls, though there was a lineup of tribal doors along a wall that teased at the idea of rooms and hallways behind them.

I later spoke with a local Jacksonite familiar with every nook and cranny of the building now occupied by Davies-Reid and once home to Jackson Drug. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he testified that there are no tunnels beneath the building and that the southern wall has always been covered up, whether by stucco or cement. With that info, I crossed Davies-Reid off the tunnel list.

Maybe sorta a tunnel?
My next best bet was the Cadillac. Bartender Jeff Handicamp readily agreed to take me behind closed doors and downstairs to check out the basement. We walked past racks of burger buns, down a short set of stairs and then another longer set of stairs. Descending underground, I was shocked to find how cavernous the building’s basement is.

We walked down hallway after hallway, turning left and right, past business offices and employee lockers until we came to a little-visited area of the basement used for miscellaneous storage. Down there are the vestiges of an old building foundation, timeworn pine logs that look anachronistic and time-warpy given all the modern business infrastructure surrounding them.

Near those logs, on the other side of a hallway wall was a dirt-walled crawlspace with enough clearance to stand up in and wide enough to shimmy down sideways. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to sidle down there and it certainly didn’t lead towards the Wort or the Cowboy. Suzanne Marino, co-owner of the Cadi, said that crawlspace runs the length of the Cadi, which is probably 15 feet, more or less.
Handicamp wanted to show me something else. Dug into the building’s eastern wall, facing Cache Street, and set above a row of metal shelving, was what, in a pinch, you might possibly maybe call a “tunnel.” Actually, if you were a convict imprisoned in the Cadillac’s basement, this might be your ideal tunnel – it was just wide and tall enough for a grown man to slither down if he absolutely, positively had to. It wasn’t a space most sane people would voluntarily enter, and if it was dug to give old timey gamblers an escape route from the Feds, then those were some seriously desperate characters.

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I was without a light bright enough to shine down the “tunnel” to see how far it ran, but what intrigued me most was that it appeared to run beneath Cache Street and to continue under Town Square. Intrigue, however, and not, to my mind, confirmation of the tunnel myth, was all that burrow offered.

The poodle and the pistol
Dale Petersen, 51, a third generation Jacksonite and the Cowboy’s engineer, says he’s heard all the stories about tunnels around Town Square and people often ask him whether the rumors are true. He’s something of an authority on the bar, having worked there for 18 years. His grandfather, Charlie Petersen, Sr., who passed away last year at 101 years old, was employed at the saloon in the 1930s and ‘40s and was part owner in the late-40s and into the ‘50s.

“The rumor I’ve mostly heard is that there was a tunnel from one place to another when there was gambling here. They would shuttle people out through them when officials would come to break up the gambling,” Petersen told me.

I spoke with Petersen after touring the Cowboy’s labyrinthine basement – which manager Hagen Dudley calls “the catacombs” – and finding no sign of tunnels down there. Petersen told me a rumor that, at one time, there was a false wall in the basement, behind which gamblers would stash their illegal machines and tables, roulette wheels, craps tables and such. When the Cowboy’s basement was renovated in 1995 to make room for the steakhouse, Petersen saw the space completely gutted and bare, and he should have been able to see some sign of the false wall or some indication of a tunnel, but nothing doing.

Trying to explain the dubious veracity of the tunnel rumor, Petersen told me another local myth. According to his grandfather, a certain night watchman at the Knotty Pine was walking through the bar one evening when he was spooked by something, drew his pistol and fired.

“What he was shooting at was a reflection of his pet poodle in a mirror,” Petersen explained, laughing. “And he’d thought it was a person or something. But when my grandfather told me that, he told me where the bullet was and I went right to the Knotty Pine and found it. Of course the mirror had done long gone been replaced, but that’s a really old time story I know was probably true.”

Hope dims
Having visited many of the sites central to Jackson’s tunnel rumor and finding little supporting evidence – I also visited Coldwater Creek, but its cavernous basement was tunnelless – my hopes of writing a story in which I discovered the mythic tunnels and was dubbed Jackson’s spelunking pioneer were dealt blow after blow as I conducted additional interviews.

An employee I ran into at the Cowboy told me he thought he first heard the rumor from Rick Bickner, owner of Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream and a Jackson resident since 1976. The only certified cave diver in Wyoming, Bickner has spelunked all over the world, so if anybody would know about subterranean passageways around Town Square, I figured he’d be my man.

When I met Bickner in his office at Moo’s and asked him about the tunnel rumor the guy at the Cowboy told me Bickner’d told him, he looked at me kind of blankly, like I’d asked him to introduce me to the Queen of England. After stumbling to explain my quest, he told me, “Nope. Never heard about tunnels around here. There aren’t any caves or tunnels that you can use to get from one building to the next.”
I spoke with Clareen Law, a prominent Jackson businesswoman who’s lived here for 51 years and she too had never heard the rumor.

Teton County Fire/EMS Fire Inspector Kathy Clay’s job is to know the ins and outs of Jackson’s buildings, and though she was amused by my questions, she’d never heard the rumor.

“One would think the place to look would be under the Odd Fellows building,” she said, “but I’ve been down there and there aren’t any tunnels.”
Clay did, however, reveal the existence of a basement on the east side of the Square that’s shared by two businesses, though that hardly constitutes a tunnel.
And remember that unidentified local Jacksonite who knows every nook and cranny of the Davies-Reid building I mentioned earlier? Well, that guy’s got insider knowledge of any number of Town Square businesses and he’s been in a lot of their basements, none of which, he said, sport any kind of connecting tunnels.

As damning as these testimonies were, the real stake in the heart of the tunnel rumor came from a storied Jackson old timer, who, unfortunately, also requested to remain anonymous. Everywhere I went to ask about tunnels, people told me I had to speak to this guy, so peerless is his familiarity with Jackson Hole.
He told me he’d heard some rumor about tunnels but he didn’t think they were there “anymore.”

Not there anymore? Anymore? Did he mean to say they were there before? Was I finally going to get to the bottom – excuse the pun – of the tunnel myth?
As he went on to explain, when buildings were built up and out around Town Square, basements weren’t included in the construction plans. Business owners had to dig beneath their buildings to excavate space to store stuff, and they didn’t do it with any permits, he told me. You could have called them tunnels, but they weren’t a secret when he was a kid and, anyway, they’ve probably all been eliminated by now, he said.

So here are the facts by this man’s impeccable word: if ever there were tunnels beneath the businesses around Town Square, they were mostly utilitarian, excavated as the need for additional storage space arose and any vestiges of them have been erased by building renovations and modernization. No tunnels leading underneath Town Square, no tunnels for gamblers or booze runners to escape through, no tunnels to travel through on those negative-40 degree days, no tunnels to go urban spelunking in.

Facing a wave of evidence crashing down against the existence of Jackson’s tunnels, I felt confident declaring this myth busted.
Case closed.

Epilogue
Weeks after conducting my research, it struck me that I hadn’t checked back in with Hitchcock at the Wort. Sure, it was unlikely the “tunnel-ish” things he’d told me about lead to the Cowboy or the Cadillac, but then where did they go?
Winding our way through the Wort’s basement, down corridors that bridged the building’s original foundation with its additions, Hitchcock led me into the darkness behind a walk-in booze refrigerator.

“I discovered this a while ago,” he told me, getting out his cell phone to use as a flashlight. He shined his light on a pair of wooden sliding doors, which, when closed, were about as wide and tall as an oven door. He slid the doors open, revealing a dark, low-ceilinged corridor through which all kinds of pipes and wires ran overhead.

The entrance sat about five feet off the floor. Turning on my cell phone’s light, I heaved myself up and through it.

“You might want to get some knee pads before you go in there. The rocks will rough up your knees,” Hitchcock warned. But I was already in the cavern and thrilled to finally be inside an underground corridor beneath a Jackson business.
There was dust everywhere. A crumpled old Budweiser can lie on the other side of the door, and I had to walk in a crushed squat to avoid grinding my knees on the rocky ground. The chamber was about 50 feet in length, 15 feet wide, with about three feet of ground clearance beneath the pipes.

I thought to myself, if I were a classy gambling cowboy in the ‘50s, is this the kind of tunnel I’d dig or use as a getaway from Johnny Law? And get my best pearl-button shirt all dusted up? Hell nah.

After passing through the square opening in the wall in front of me, through the plastic sheeting, checking out the beer bottles (I found bottles of Italian Swiss Colony sherry in another chamber, which, I was told, the Wort hasn’t stocked for 30 years) and being disappointed by the dead-end promise of the light coming in from the alley, I waddled back the way I’d come and hollered to Hitchcock: “I definitely wouldn’t call this a tunnel. It’s a crawlspace. Plain and simple.”

And he agreed, which was a bummer, because this was my last best hope for writing my way into Jackson’s history books.

photo by benjamin r. bombard
Decomposing beer bottles beneath the Wort Hotel.


Reader Comments

nice article,,, but who goes looking for tunnels in dark basements without a flashlight.
dave

And no one thought to check the tunnel beneath the Teton Theater? And while we’re on the subject of going underground, there’s a huge tunnel underneath Deloney that connects most of the businesses in that area. Oh and there’s that pesky stripper pole underneath Blu…
Munz

And glass beer bottles can’t decompose.
Munz

Rick Bickner isn’t the only certified cave diver in Wyoming, isn’t even the only in Jackson.
Mark Schlosser

I was also surprised not to find mention of the Teton Theater. There is definitely a tunnel down there but I think it just leads to the back wall of the theater, I was too heebie jeebed to go in more than a few yards.
Danny Haworth

Ok, so there were no tunnels, dont get discouraged! you’ve clearly and unwittingly (or not) segwayed your next project, Cave Diving In Wyoming.
Bill S.”


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