Stories of mysterious tunnels have snaked beneath the surface of the history of downtown Bakersfield for 150 years.
Legends of labyrinthine passages running beneath the streets and sidewalks of the city’s downtown district — especially in Bakersfield’s two historic Chinatowns — still echo with enigma, dark romance and quite possibly some racial and cultural stereotypes.
At a meeting held last year by the city's Historic Preservation Commission, the commissioners agreed to research the legendary tunnels, map them if possible, and even look into exploiting them as a potential draw for tourism and downtown business.
It seemed like an idea with potential. After all, historic tunnels from Sacramento to Seattle attract tourist dollars and help visitors understand that parts of a city’s history may sometimes lie buried beneath the surface.
“They have tunnel tours in other parts of the world. We thought maybe we could do that here as well,” said Brady S. Bernhart, a member of the commission looking into the tunnel question.
When the state’s high-speed rail system is complete, Bernhart said, legions of potential tourists are expected to pass through downtown Bakersfield on a regular basis.
“We want people to get off those trains and leave some of their dollars here,” he said.
But do these tunnels actually exist? Where do they go and are they even traversable?
The Californian set out to find out.
We began with our own news archives, and the archives of other newspapers.
In a letter to The Californian written in the spring of 1903, for example, Bakersfield resident V.E. Wilson responded to an “exhortation” published in the newspaper a few days before to “clean out the tenderloin,” a section of old Chinatown that Wilson asserted was “detrimental to the character of the residents and demoralizing to both public and private virtue in its influence.”
Public attention to old Chinatown — a six to nine square-block district bordered roughly by 20th and 23rd streets and N and K streets — came in the wake of the deaths on April 19, 1903, of Deputy Sheriff William Tibbet and Marshal Thomas Packard, who were shot and killed while attempting to serve a murder warrant against notorious outlaw James McKinney, who was also killed in the shootout.
In his letter to the editor, Wilson called upon city officials to “clean out, reduce and isolate” the district.
But this is where it gets interesting, tunnel-wise:
“Close up its hop joints, dance halls … houses of ill-fame; and all low dive saloons and questionable resorts,” Wilson wrote, “and fill up the underground tunnels in the district that are constructed to assist criminals to escape the officers of the law.”
Indeed, according to local historian Gilbert Gia in his work “Underground Bakersfield,” McKinney’s friend Al Hulse was able to escape following the shootout.
“Newspapers,” Gia wrote, “speculated that he’d fled through a tunnel.”
About a year and a half later on Sept. 8, 1904, a headline in the Bakersfield Daily Echo read, “Two blocks swept by great fire.”
And in a style of reporting that made it painfully clear how little value was afforded the lives of local Chinese immigrants, the subhead continued, “William Silver and a Chinaman burned.”
Two days after the fire, a reporter from the Echo returned to the scene after the debris had been cleared away, and described what he saw.
The “ground was honeycombed with vaults and places of safety.” The fire, the Echo reported, had “laid bare a labyrinth of underground passages.”
Six years later in the fall of 1910, a headline in The Californian read, “Sheriff’s posse raids thirty-one opium dens,” and another from 1922 reported that police conducted a “tunnel raid on a gambling joint” at 720 18th St. in new Chinatown, a district that ran west from about R Street, between 17th and 18th streets.
“Stories about Chinese tunnels go back to the early days of Bakersfield, and those were real,” Gia wrote in his history. “Until the 1960s, residential covenants denied Chinese the right to own property outside Bakersfield’s two Chinatown ghettos.”
Even as their businesses grew, Chinese-Americans were prohibited from expanding outside the artificial lines drawn by those who held the reins of power.
But business and living space could be expanded by digging basements.
Despite the stories, many residents of Chinese immigrants remain skeptical. Most of the so-called tunnels, some argue, were simply extended basements that were sometimes connected to neighboring basements.
Norman Lum, the caretaker of the historic Let Sing Gong Temple, which still stands at the southwest corner of 18th and R streets, is proud of the contributions Chinese immigrants and their descendants made to the history and culture of Bakersfield.
Lum, now in his early 70s, remembers as a child going to the old temple, or joss house, for seasonal and cultural events. There, worshippers could light candles and incense and pray to the gods, whose gilded likenesses seemed to look back in calm repose.
Lum doesn’t doubt that cellars and basements were common in parts of Chinatown, but they were common throughout the downtown business district, he said.
In the days before air conditioning, underground rooms provided much-needed relief from the valley’s notorious summer heat, and also provided storage space for businesses.
“People like to dream up things,” he said. “I’m not saying there weren’t tunnels, but the stories are exaggerated.”
In the old days, the Chinese were limited economically and segregated from the larger culture. So it’s not surprising that some skirted the law to get ahead.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” he said. “I look at it as history.”
Several residents of Chinese descent addressed the question of tunnels in “The Chinese of Kern County: 1857-1960.” The book, assembled from a volume of work by esteemed local historian W. Harland Boyd, was supplemented by three years of interviews by its editor, Jerry Ludeke, and Ellen G. Miller, Kimberly Loke Whitaker and Eleanor Kimm Peterson.
“We didn’t go into any tunnels; it was just a basement,” Allan Choy recalled of his days as a child digging in the dirt in the basement of the Ying On Club at 21st and L streets.
“We never found any (tunnels), he was quoted as saying. “I think it’s hearsay. It makes good reading.”
Daisy Lee Chung Chow recalled as a child during the 1920s living in the building where two decades earlier, the outlaw McKinney was shot. And while an outside stairway that led down to the basement was called “the tunnel,” it was not connected to any other basements or passageways. It was simply a back door.
In those pre-air conditioning days, she said, people used basements to escape the heat.
“There was no such thing as the tunnels,” Eugene Leong recalled in the 2002 publication.
“Maybe in old Chinatown they may have had (doors between basements), but in new Chinatown, it wasn’t like that.”
Like many Chinese-Americans today, Leong was skeptical of the stories.
“There was no tunnels. Just cellars,” he was quoted as saying. “Everybody always asks me that and I don’t know where they get it! And the opium den. I don’t know where they are! I’m sure they had them in the eighteen hundreds, but I never (saw any).”
Fred Porter of Porter & Associates Inc., an engineering and surveying firm on 21st and M streets, right in the heart of what was once old Chinatown, said his firm built its headquarters from the ground-up in the early 1990s.
While they did have to clear away a lot of rubble left there following the 1952 earthquake, there was no evidence of subterranean passages.
“There were no tunnels on our property,” said Porter, whose business backs up against China Alley. “We didn’t see anything.”
A similar story is told by the proprietors of the child care center now in operation at 18th and Q streets, a building that once housed the New China Cafe.
Sherman Lee, proprietor of Bill Lee’s Bamboo Chopsticks on 18th Street in operation since 1938, also said he has seen no evidence of tunnels connected to his building.
The stories, he said, harken back to tired, old stereotypes of Chinese-Americans as secretive or inscrutable.
There are basements all over downtown, Lee said. Not just in those areas that were once known as Chinatowns.
Indeed, Gia notes, the 1898 Hay Building on 19th Street, like many other brick structures, was built with a full basement to provide extra space for storage.
“As years passed,” Gia wrote, “those emporiums were subdivided into smaller businesses, and because each needed storage, the basements were compartmentalized.
“As business came and went, new basement doors were added, old ones boarded-up, and partitions moved. Visitors today who see those passages always call them tunnels.”
Below T.L. Maxwell’s Restaurant off 17th Place east of Chester Avenue, a large basement narrows into a tunnel-like structure that runs west toward Chester.
Terry Maxwell, the restaurant’s owner and a member of the Bakersfield City Council, believes a speakeasy once operated in the basement during Prohibition.
Some suggest the tunnel was an escape route, a back exit so to speak, in the event authorities conducted a raid on the premises.
But these days the tunnel dead-ends after 12 or 15 feet. If it ever led anywhere, it no longer does.
And that’s where The Californian’s research appears to be leading as well: toward a dead-end.
As entertaining and interesting as it is digging for real tunnels still in existence in downtown Bakersfield, the evidence is weak at best that any still exist.
Nick Fidler, the City of Bakersfield’s public works director, and Mike Connor, the city’s streets superintendent for the past 36 years, have heard the stories and the legends. But like UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors, the physical evidence is simply not compelling.
“We’ve never actually found a tunnel,” Fidler said. And it’s not for lack of trying.
Some downtown basements have brick arches that may have once been entrances to tunnels or additional underground vaults.
But like Al Capone’s vault, there appears to be nothing there.
When Downtown Elementary School and a nearby parking structure were built in the late 1990s, there were stories about remnants of tunnels that were found, Fidler said.
But nothing else.
“We did a full retrofit of Wall Street Alley some years ago,” Fidler said.
But no sign of tunnels.
“We’ve heard the same rumors you’ve heard,” he said. “But we’ve never been able to find anything.”
It seems the Historic Preservation Commission’s hopes of mapping and even developing Bakersfield’s legendary downtown tunnels have hit a cave-in.
It seems the tunnels of Bakersfield are no more. The legend ends here.