April Fool's Feature: Tunnels of Lore 

Unrelated events are linked in more ways than you think

Last year, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne closed two key, downtown streets because of imminent terrorist threat ... or so our local media reported.

Then, during late January and early February, construction stopped on the Boise Tower project at 8th and Main. Reasons included permit and labor union contract snags ... or so our local media reported.

Around the same time-despite a construction freeze imposed on government projects due to the State of Idaho's disastrous financial quandary-renovations continued on the Capitol building unabated. The project was already underway and couldn't be stopped "mid-scaffold" ... or so our local media reported.

Later, festive Olympic-related art created by local youngsters, surrounded the Boise Tower construction site. This was to celebrate the Boise leg of the celebrated Olympic Torch Relay ... or so our local media reported.

With the help of information from a truth-obsessed citizen and a high-level government source, BW has been able to connect these seemingly disparate happenings into an age-old, Boise-grown conspiracy of startlingly vast proportion.

For years, rumors have persisted of the existence of Chinese tunnels under downtown Boise. Local officials and historians, however, have always denounced the "tunnel tales" as mere urban legend and hogwash. Now, it seems, the tunnels may be more truth than rumor.

Thanks to the determination of one courageous construction worker to "do the right thing," BW has learned that excavations at the Boise Tower construction site lurched to a halt last November, not because of union snafus as was reported, but because of a remarkable archaeological discovery.

On Nov. 4, Mr. X, who spoke to us only on the condition of anonymity, was working in a corner space adjacent to the old police building (former site of Doughty's Bistro), on a section of ground where police horse stables and outbuildings stood a century ago. In the midst of planting a survey stake, X's shovel hit something hard.

X kept digging until he uncovered a rectangular surface of thick, metal mesh. He pried the mesh loose, revealing a chamber below measuring approximately 2' x 2.' Inside were yellowed shreds of Chinese newspapers and muslin bundles tied with red string.

X unwrapped the bundles and found two clay pipes and five metal tins containing a brown, resin-like substance. Irving Beagle, curator of Asian Artifacts at the Boise Museum of Culture and Archaeology, later confirmed that the clay pipes were of the style used for opium smoking and that the tins themselves held ossified remnants of the drug. More exciting, however, was what happened when X and his crew broke through the wood plank floor of the hideaway.

They found a flight of stairs which led to an underground room of impressive proportions (see photo). Several passageways, some marked with Chinese characters, led from the central room.

"There was some weird shit down there," said X of the vault-like chamber's contents. "We saw old boxes with Chinese writing and a few skeletons that crumbled to dust when we touched them. They must have been real old. It really creeped us out."

BW contacted Irving Beagle, who confirmed the historical import of X's find. "To call this discovery compelling, is a gross understatement," said Beagle. "We have been well aware of the existence of the Chinese in turn-of-the-century Boise, of the existence of Chinese fraternal organizations, apothecaries and joss temples. But before now, the idea of Chinese tunnels has been the stuff of legend, the Loch Ness Monster, if you will, of Idaho cultural history."

X soon realized that if he wanted his brilliant-if accidental-discovery to be known, he would have to make it public himself. Powerful forces, he found, were determined to keep his discovery secret.

Late on that fateful day of Nov. 4, after X notified site supervisors of his find, they placed barricades over the staircase to the underground room. "Union heavies," said X, "called in their goon squads and pulled a major hush-hush." Thanks to the presence of armed toughs, X and members of his crew got the unmistakable message that there would be "big trouble," if anyone alerted the press to the discovery of the underground spaces.

A day or two later, X decided that despite the stern warnings, he would contact Beagle, with whom he shared a common acquaintance, as well as return to the underground chamber on his own.

He managed to do so by leaving the site when his shift was over, then returning later in the guise of a pizza delivery man. As the night shift supervisors were enjoying the pie, X would "slip under the radar," lift one of the planks that covered the staircase and sneak underground. Over the course of several nights, X's secret exploration revealed a complex network of tunnels.

X confirmed that the passageways-though many sections are now barely navigable due to crumbling rock and low ceilings-run beneath the city center as far north as Fort Street, south to the Boise River, east to the Old Penitentiary and west to 18th Street. X believes there are at least five levels of tunnels, the deepest found in the geographic center of the city, directly beneath the fountain at The Grove.

Another BW source, one well-placed in the hallowed halls of local government, confirmed that state officials were notified of the Boise Tower find. But during secret meetings disguised as "9-11 Security Planning Sessions" members of the governor's and mayor's staffs decided to keep the information from the public. Their aim was to circumnavigate federal laws regarding archeological sites uncovered during construction projects.

Why was local leadership so interested in keeping the existence of subterranean tunnels secret? Consider this: The state and city have much at stake in the speed and completion of the project. The Boise Tower site has often been an epicenter of trouble. The corner was the site of the Eastman Building, a sandstone structure built in the classic western office block style, that burned under somewhat mysterious circumstances in the late '80s. The block then lay barren for some time-became the home of farmers' markets, Christmas tree vendors and even the odd volleyball game. Then, in the '90s, Seattle developer Rick Peterson came up with the grandiose plan to turn the block into luxury high-rise apartments and retail spaces.

To date, the developer has sunk lots of dollars into this certain patch of Boise earth, and local leaders have endured lots of community pressure from citizens to "do something, already."

So, despite the unassailable cultural value of the tunnels, site supervisors working in concert with state and city leaders, decided to seal the opening and continue construction. "It's shocking," said Beagle. "Really, really shocking that the dollar would reign supreme over such a find. The collective world of culture is fortunate that someone like Mr. X was willing to come forward and tell the truth."

BW contacted the governor's and mayor's offices, as well as those of the site developer. Our calls were not returned.

BW's government source was able to add additional, colorful information to the story of Boise's tunnels. Apparently, government power-brokers have known about the existence of tunnels for decades. This latest coverup isn't the first time local leaders have suppressed the truth about them. Early in the century, said our source, officials used the upper-level tunnels to ferry high-profile and/or privileged inmates between the Old Penitentiary, the brothels of Boise's infamous Levy's Alley, and the opium dens in the city's center. City and state officials, claim our source, occasionally used them for the very same purposes.

At that time, there were stretches of tunnels that were strictly off limits to officials, though the officials knew of their existence. Chinese residents used these private stretches as living spaces, storerooms, black market warehouses and "sidewalk vaults." As the story goes, full-scale Chinese opera productions were also staged underground.

Desperate for workers to help build the city's early infrastructure, government officials overlooked the numbers of legal, and often illegal, business transactions that took place in this secret society. Curiously, considering how the tunnels have become intricately linked with Chinese lore, Chinese immigrants weren't actually responsible for building them. Rather, they, like the government officials, took advantage of fortuitous geographical circumstances. They simply expanded and built upon the natural volcanic rock caverns and lava tubes that have existed under Boise City since the beginning of history.

The timing of the closure of State and Jefferson streets by Gov. Kempthorne last year, could not have been better. X and our government source both say that while the street closures did have something to do with terrorist threats, there was more to the story. The real danger of a terrorist-planted explosive is that such a force could possibly destabilize the long-sealed network of tunnels and caverns and cause a catastrophic collapse-not only of Boise's civic structures, but of the very acres of terra firma beneath the city's core.

The off-the-books construction project, known as "Project Shore Leave," has masqueraded as the Capitol renovation. During the months of January and February, with the jackhammers pounding out a regular rhythm into the late evenings, construction was going on underneath the Capitol Building. Workers weren't really improving the appearance of the Capitol facade at all. They were shoring up the multi-level, honeycomb-like architecture of the tunnels.

Meanwhile, back at the Boise Tower site, the timing of major events-this time, the Winter Olympics themselves-served the interests of Boise Tower honchos and their cohorts. Not wanting curious onlookers to see what was happening on the Tower site, in particular, to see the large barricades covering the tunnel opening, they devised an insidious plan that involved students in Boise public schools.

Timed to coincide with the arrival of the Olympic torch relay in Boise, large panels of Olympic-theme art were attached to the chain link fencing surrounding the excavation site. This effectively masked the area from public scrutiny.

The cover-up apparently worked ... until now, that is.

BW, aided by its outspoken sources, is determined to advocate for the preservation of the tunnels. They are cultural treasures in our eyes and in the eyes of experts like Irving Beagle. "Now is when our work really begins," said Beagle. "Now that Boiseans know the truth, they can uncover the coverup and revel in their secret history."

As for X, he has found employment in another city. He begins his new job on April 1.

This large room discovered recently was presumed to be the theater area which hosted Chinese Operas around the turn of the century.

Pin It

Tags: ,

Speaking of Feature


Comments are closed.

More by Fraut Stub

Readers also liked…

Submit an Event

© 2019 Boise Weekly

Website powered by Foundation