At Land’s End, usually frequented only by raccoons, is a forgotten tunnel under the Cliff House in San Francisco. In 1891 a grizzly old miner announced there was a fortune in the coal vein he’d found. On March 28 of that same year, readers of the Chronicle were greeted with astonishing news: Coal Discovered in the City! “An old miner has found a vein hugging the coastline below the bluff at the Cliff House (left photo). ‘Do try to buy up that land,’ miner Charles Jackson told Superintendent H.H. Lynch of the Cliff House and Ferries Railway. ‘There is a fortune in it, for I am sure there are thousands of tons of good coal in that district.'” (more…)
Another example of a secret tunnel beneath a San Francisco speakeasy is at the present site of a Bourbon and Branch saloon at 501 Jones St. near O’Farrell. Look for the Anti-Saloon League sign (upper photo). Between 1923-1935 the nondescript building housed the J.J. Russell Cigar Shop, but an aromatic havana was not their main product. One would knock on the main door and provide a password (today, you must make reservations via their website where you are given a password to be used just as in olden days). Once inside, if you requested a particular cigar, an employee would lead the way through a trap door to the basement where a bartender would serve the finest bootleg contraband shipped from Vancouver. There was a brass bell, which was connected to a lever behind the counter upstairs. If this sounded, a warning would be sent throughout the speakeasy. Patrons would scurry through various tunnels. The Ladies Exit, for example, granted safe passage to Leavenworth Street, a full block away. (more…)
Secret tunnels in Chinatown included the one emanating from the present-day Cameron House at 920 Sacramento Street (left photo). In the 19th and early 20th centuries, neither Chinese American leaders nor white officials in San Francisco made any real effort to curb the tide of a growing slave trade. With few legal resources, a Protestant missionary by the name of Donaldina Cameron (upper right photo) extricated upwards of three thousand girls from serfdom. They were known as mui tsai and sold into prostitution or domestic work by the tongs who ran the brothels. The rescue work was dangerous as Miss Cameron received ongoing death threats from the gangs. Bold beyond description, she would chase down leads to free the women. On one occasion, the missionary shared a slave girl’s cell in order to save her. (more…)
The 1906 earthquake and fire unearthed the vast system of secret tunnels beneath Chinatown in San Francisco. Many believe the catacombs stretched throughout the sixteen-block enclave and into North Beach. The leaders of the tongs guarded the whereabouts of entrances to these passageways with their lives. The underpasses hid thriving opium dens (upper left photo), torture and execution chambers as well as escape routes that confounded authorities for decades. Mayor Eugene Schmitz (mayor 1902-1907) and attorney Abe Ruef would use their influence to scare Chinese out of their downtown enclave.
A secret tunnel runs under the former San Francisco law office of Melvin Belli (1907-1996), the “King of Torts”, whose client list included Errol Flynn, Muhammad Ali, The Rolling Stones, Mae West, Jack Ruby, and others. After winning a court case, Belli would raise a Jolly Roger flag over his office building and fire a cannon, mounted on the roof, to announce the victory and the impending party. The structure at 722 Montgomery Street in the Barbary Coast District was built circa 1850. Belli claimed that it was a Gold Rush era brothel, later to become the Melodeon Theater where one of the most acclaimed and beloved entertainers in the City’s history performed. Lotta Crabtree was a noted singer with a zealous fan base. (more…)
When America went dry during Prohibition, San Francisco simply went underground, digging secret tunnels. The House of Shields was established in 1908 and is presently located at 39 New Montgomery St. As you enter under an alluring neon sign right out of a Bogie movie, you saunter across a mosaic tiled floor to a grand bar. Textured panels and columns that adorn it provide a reassuring sturdiness that fits the bar’s authenticity. A thick bar rail, flat stools, paneled walls, and dark booths confirm the fact that yes, this is a real, historic tavern. To gain access to bootleg whiskey (as well as women) during Prohibition, a tunnel was built connecting the laundry room of the Palace Hotel to the above establishment, which was across the street. The House of Shields was a former gentlemen’s club where women were not allowed until 1976. (more…)