Is it the story that never dies?
A 2-year-old Californian article about the legendary Chinese tunnels of Bakersfield is enjoying a second burst of reader interest after a link to the story was posted recently on the Facebook page Kern County of Old.
The original story, which ran Jan. 30, 2016, included interviews with business owners, the City of Bakersfield's public works director, members of the local Chinese-American community, the city’s streets superintendent, local historians and others.
Suddenly, two years after publication, the engagement from readers has received an impressive boost, with 250-plus reactions, more than 100 comments and 86 shares.
What is it about the stories of Bakersfield's underground that seems to fire the imagination of so many?
"So interesting," Bakersfield resident Rick Schwartz wrote on the post.
"My great aunt, Dr. Lois Worthington, would go there (Bakersfield's Chinatown) in a horse drawn carriage and treat the Chinese people and delivered their babies," recalled Debra Herod Carleton. "She told us stories about gambling and opium dens there too."
Another memory came from Linda Dyer Mooney.
"I worked at Pacific Telephone on the corner of 22nd and L streets, across the alley from the Ying On building," she wrote. "Once an employee's car sunk into a (sinkhole) ... behind the Ying On building. Basement? Tunnel? Who knows."
In his work, "Historic Bakersfield and Kern County," retired teacher and longtime local historian Gilbert Gia explored the various legends of Kern County's tunnels.
"You might have heard about the tunnel under Bakersfield High School that snakes north to downtown, or about the shooting range under the East Bakersfield High gym," Gia wrote. "If those don't sound familiar then how about the Cellar Bar tunnel under old Brock's (department store), or the secret Chinese tunnels?
"Stories like these have been around for generations," Gia wrote. "Some are true."
Old Chinatown — a six- to nine-square-block district bordered roughly by 20th and 23rd streets and N and K streets — was for decades notorious for its red-light district and gambling parlors. But Bakersfield residents of Chinese descent had limited options for making a living.
"Until the 1960s," Gia wrote, "residential covenants denied Chinese the right to own property outside Bakersfield’s two Chinatown ghettos."
Indeed, the tunnels in old Chinatown were quite real.
On Sept. 8, 1904, a headline in the Bakersfield Daily Echo read, “Two blocks swept by great fire.”
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.
But old Chinatown has mostly been erased by time and development. Downtown Elementary School and a huge parking garage have mostly buried the Chinese-American community of old.
Ken Hooper, a U.S. history and archiving teacher at Bakersfield High School and president of the Kern County Historical Society, said people often don't keep in mind that there are two very different categories on urban tunnels in Bakersfield.
"The Chinese tunnels that are gone," he said, "and the access tunnels that are still there, but for insurance liability reasons, no business owners will let people have access."
There are basements all over downtown. 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."
Glen Pellett says he was a punk rocker in the 1980s in Bakersfield — and every punk from that era knows about the tunnels, where, apparently, a certain amount of partying took place.
Hooper addressed rumors of tunnels between East Bakersfield High School and Kern Medical Center.
"It’s a constant question for history enthusiasts in Bakersfield when we have historical society events," Hooper said. "I have no knowledge of a tunnel between East and KMC, but I have been asked the same question. We have tunnels at BHS, I’ve been in them.
"At BHS, they used to have a boiler system that heated the buildings," Hooper said. "So it was an access tunnel for pipes. They use them for conduits for phone and computer lines. It runs from the old boiler room to Harvey Auditorium."
After much research and interviewing, this reporter ended the 2016 story with the line: "It seems the tunnels of Bakersfield are no more. The legend ends here."
But it's clear many don't want the legend to end. And some still ask whether Bakersfield's apparently fictional labyrinth can still be turned into a tourist destination.
Maybe that's a question for the next story.