There’s something fascinating about secret tunnels. In popular culture they are often used for nefarious purposes in castles and old mansions, and they are not exclusive to fiction. There are countless real-life stories of tunnels being used for smuggling drugs and other illegal contraband, as well as for escape purposes such as the famous Alcatraz prison breakout in 1962.
Here in the Northwest, a hidden network of subterranean tunnels was rumored to have existed in Tacoma’s Chinatown during the turn-of-the-century. According to long-standing lore, the Tacoma tunnels were part of an elaborate system used for smuggling opium into the city’s vice parlors. A labyrinth of secret passageways was similarly rumored to have existed in Seattle’s Chinatown. The Seattle tunnels allegedly consisted of a system of false doors and channels between various Chinese gambling houses, and were a means of escape in a police raid. Seattle’s police chief at the time, Charles Wappenstein, was said to have made a sport of discovering such illicit burrows.
When Husky Stadium was renovated in 2011, a sealed tunnel that had once been used by visiting teams back in the 1920s was unearthed by a rather surprised crew of construction workers. There is also the Seattle Underground — a network of underground passageways in the Pioneer Square neighborhood that were created when parts of the city were rebuilt atop the burnt-out ruins of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Today, these underground tunnels are one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
One tunnel story is found north of the city along an early stretch of the state highway system. Originally known as the Old Bothell Highway, the roadway has since been reconfigured and now exists under a variety of names: State Route 522, Bothell Way, and Lake City Way. It is on this last-named stretch that one of Seattle’s more enduring tunnel legends was born.
According to local lore, a secret tunnel was constructed in the 1930s that connected The Jolly Roger (a much-fabled Lake City Way roadhouse) to the offensively named Coon Chicken Inn, which was located across the street. As the legend goes, the basement of the Jolly Roger offered illegal drinking, prostitution and gambling. A watchtower sat atop the Jolly Roger and when approaching police cars were spotted, an alarm would sound below which allowed all the guests to escape arrest by fleeing through the tunnel. The two buildings involved in this story have long since been torn down and no evidence of an adjoining tunnel has ever been discovered. That hasn’t stop decades of tunnel-lore.
Local novelist Thomas Kohnstamm referenced the tunnels in his popular novel, Lake City. Kohnstamm, a lifelong Lake City resident, tells me he has never actually seen any nearby tunnels but has collected plenty of stories. While out promoting my first book, Seattle Prohibition, I heard plenty of anecdotal evidence from people who claimed to have seen the tunnel firsthand. One person reported to have stumbled upon it while out riding bikes and exploring the area with friends. Another old-timer claimed to have seen the tunnel while visiting the Jolly Roger as an adult customer back in the 1950s. He said he spotted the tunnel’s entrance after being invited down to the basement for an after-hours card game.
Over time, the story has evolved along with changes in the neighborhood. Beginning in the 1930s, the local black community quite understandably began taking issue with the blatant racial imagery used by the Coon Chicken Inn. The Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP), as well as the African American newspaper, Northwest Enterprise, both began openly protesting the restaurant. At the same time, the city’s largest musician’s union began holding protests against the Inn for unfair labor practices. The infamous eatery closed down for good in 1949.
A decade later, the University Trailer Park opened just a block away from the Jolly Roger. Within a few years, a new version of the tunnel story emerged in which the secret tunnel now ran between the Jolly Roger and the trailer park. In 1989, the Jolly Roger met its demise in a spectacular fire that started in the same basement where the legendary tunnel was said to have been located. The entire building was later demolished. An entirely new era of Lake City Way was about to begin, at which point the tunnel story was once again reinvented.
It all started in the late 1980s when the famous Colacurcio brothers – headed by Frank Colacurcio – were beginning to significantly expand their strip club empire and had begun establishing topless clubs in the Lake City neighborhood. A new story emerged about a secret tunnel between the University Trailer Park and one of the strip clubs. According to this version, the “dancers” who worked at the club also lived in the trailer park across the street, so the tunnel was used as a secret passage between the two locations. It’s unclear why a tunnel was needed.
There is no evidentiary support that a strip club has ever existed anywhere near the trailer park, though a business by the name of Talents West operated a block away. Talents West served as the office headquarters for Frank Colacurcio.
Did this tunnel have any connection with the original Jolly Roger tunnel? The answer suggests a sociological perspective, since many of these local tunnel stories involve various disenfranchised groups of people: Seattle’s besieged Chinese population in the early 1900s, the local black community of the segregated 1930s, and the lower-income folks at many trailer parks.
Many local historians dismiss the Lake City Way tunnels as urban legend. The Jolly Roger opened after Prohibition was repealed, the logic being: “if booze was legal again, then why the need for a secret tunnel?” Dayna. Spaccarotelli, who helps her father run the iconic Shanty Tavern, has also heard all the tunnel stories but is skeptical of their existence. “There were arches with recesses in the basement of the Jolly Roger that folks thought were tunnel entrances. We’re inclined to believe the recesses were for beer and wine storage. It would have been like a root cellar – nice cool temperature and no light for proper storage of the beverages.“
As far as the rumored trailer park/strip club tunnel, she is equally dismissive. “I don’t know of any strip clubs in that area. Rick’s (now Dream Girls) was way up on 113th. Frank Colacircio had Talents West on the corner of 86th and Lake City Way NE.”
Topography offers another possible explanation. Beginning in the early 1960s, construction began for the Lake City Sewer Tunnel project. Completed in 1967, the massive sewer system consists of an elaborate maze of underground tunnels that spans nearly four miles from Matthews Beach to the Lake Washington Ship Canal. Is it possible that parts of this sewer system have been unwittingly stumbled upon by visitors to the area, thus giving rise to all the tunnel stories? Were parts of this enormous tunnel system what the local neighborhood kids discovered while out riding bikes in the 1970s?
We’ll likely never know if secret tunnels actually existed on Lake City Way or not. Perhaps someday a road maintenance crew will uncover their existence. For now, they survive in perpetuity as an urban legend, preserved by the public’s imagination.