Monday, June 4, 2012

A Persistent Myth

Stories abound across the West about “Chinese tunnels” beneath the buildings and streets of cities and towns. According to Priscilla Wegars of the University of Idaho, a foremost authority on Asian culture in the West, there is overwhelming evidence that “Chinese tunnels” are nothing more than myths. Not a single “Chinese tunnel” has ever been identified. While it is true that Chinese businesses, opium dens, and even living quarters are sometimes found in basement spaces, these in no way can be called “tunnels.” The Chinese were often targets of discrimination, but they did not live underground because of persecution as many believe. Basements were simply cheaper to rent than rooms above ground. Further, the basements of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century business blocks frequently had arched doorways leading to sidewalk vaults. These were storage or delivery areas. Lit by glass blocks turned purple with age, these mysterious vaults had nothing to do with the Chinese. Tunnel systems beneath downtown areas in Helena, Butte, Missoula, Bozeman, and elsewhere do exist; they served as steam-heat delivery systems. While sometimes steam tunnels served clandestine purposes, particularly for alcohol delivery during Prohibition, these passageways cannot be termed “Chinese tunnels.” Finally, in all settlements where mining was extensive, hand-dug tunnels often remain beneath residential neighborhoods and downtown business areas. Miners of all ethnic groups dug tunnels, and there is nothing that makes a tunnel exclusively Chinese.

From Montana Moments: History on the Go
P.S. Remember this remnant of Chinese culture found in Big Timber?


  1. I ha e a question. I remember being at the museum of mining in butte when I was a Jr high student in 1978. There were diaramas of Chinese laundries and other businesses and even living quarters in the no longer used mine shafts. I even remember the size of the display and the height of the glass window in the wall. We're they wrong?

  2. I do not know if they intended to portray these "basement" spaces as tunnels. That would be incorrect. But as I mentioned, Chinese often did rent basements because they were cheaper. Basement businesses and tunnels are not the same thing, and the Chinese were not the only people who rented basement space. I suggest you look at Priscilla Wegars' information on Chinese tunnels. She is the foremost authority on Asians in the West. Thanks!