By Elisabeth Ruffner
(Note: Jonne Markham did a great deal of research on tunnels and first published an article about them in the former weekly newspaper called THE PAPER on October 23, 1975, which is available at the Sharlot Hall Museum Library and Archives. The following story is an updated version of the 1975, publication.)
The tunnels under Prescott? Of course, everybody knows about the tunnels! Lots of people have seen them...just ask some of the old timers! So I asked some of the old timers: I asked Gail Gardner, poet and rancher, 1892-1988, who graduated from Prescott High School in 1909, I asked Budge Ruffner and I asked Dewey Born. They all said they didn't know anything about tunnels and Gail was more definite: he said there weren't any.
I had heard from various sources that the passages were reputed to go various places around the town. There were many reasons given for the tunnels, from smuggling Chinese, to bootlegging, and from harboring ladies of the night to allowing Palace Bar imbibers to board the train free from rain and Indian attack.
The first tunnel I visited was under the former Brinkmeyer Hotel on N. Montezuma Street, now the Favour Real Estate office. The long narrow space is about 4 feet wide, with massive granite stones on the street side, with 2 doorways and 4 windows. "Why windows?", I wondered . At the Arizona Hotel building, now Coyote Joe's Restaurant, part of the basement had caved in, but the owner wasn't giving much credence to the tunnel theory anyway.
The old speakeasy under Moore's Laundry on S. Montezuma Street was cold, dark and spooky. There was no trace of any passageway.
Elisabeth Ruffner and I visited with the current owner of the Hotel St. Michael, Lex Krieger, and I was able to corroborate my earlier feeling that I was on the right track of a less romantic explanation for the passages.
There were several glaring errors in the stories, one of which was that none of the old timers knew about tunnels, imagine Gail Gardner as a boy in 1900 Prescott, when people claim the tunnels were active, and not knowing about them!
The other problem was with the windows. Why in the world were there windows, as well as doors, in a tunnel? The windows and doors I saw looked much like those pictured in the photographs of old Prescott buildings. Perhaps the buildings' basement level store fronts were covered up long ago when sidewalks were laid.
Elisabeth Ruffner has a theory that dirt may have been removed from the top of Elks Hill, when the street car line was extended to Fort Whipple, and spread along Montezuma Street, thus covering up basement entries and windows. She is still exploring this idea.
Today, the stairwell in front of the Hotel St. Michael is being opened up, and will soon serve to reach the nearest openings on the basement level. The windows and doors that were built on that level will again be visible to all who venture down the stairs.
There were similar railings and stairs on a number of downtown buildings including the Bank of Arizona, now the Chamber of Commerce executive office, southeast corner of Gurley and Montezuma, which was built as the Wilson Block and housed a clothing store and hotel, as well as a full basement entered from the Gurley Street side. This entry and the Hotel St. Michael entry are the only ones visible today.
The search for the tunnels of Prescott continues to be rewarding, but in an unexpected way. I learned more about old Prescott. I now have a dubious and uneven knowledge of Prescott's basements, as well as the opportunity to have had wonderful conversations with 25 or more Prescott people I might not have otherwise met.
We will continue to 'dig up' more stories about Prescott's fabled tunnels in the near future!
Elisabeth Ruffner is Adjunct Curator for Historic Preservation, Sharlot Hall Museum.
Our readers' thoughts...
I have always had an interest in the tunnels of Prescott. I believe they were here because my brother and my dad have both been in one of the tunnels. Do you remember the pretty purple glass (or stone) pieces that used to be in our side walks on the north side of Gurley Street near downtown? Several years ago, they were removed or covered over when the sidewalks were redone. I'm told those were commonly used for lighting in tunnels in other cities. That was the part of the tunnel that my brother explored (probably in the mid to late 70's). The place that he was lowered down into the tunnel has also been covered over. It is also my understanding that over the years most, if not all, of the tunnels have been blocked off to prevent unlawful access into businesses. I suppose it's possible that they were nothing more than basement access, but I sure hope not.
May 1, 2008
Ive noticed these Purple Square pieces of Glass on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the Palace Saloon on whiskey row. I always thought they were ther to illuminate the uderground passages beneath the sidewalks.
September 12, 2009
I have lived in Prescott for almost 20 Years and these "tunnels" you seek are visible and accessible to anyone who has worked at the Palace. The tunnels are there, if you go into the Palace and ask to see the freezer. They are still there. Hall ways and Windows. Its spooky and dark. It really is Prescott history! Its the coolest thing I've seen about this town.
November 28, 2010
I worked at El Charro and I have seen the tunnels myself whenever I had to go to the cellar to restock anything. It was pretty much a brick wall that had been knocked over and when I walked into the tunnel I could tell it kept going but I never had the desire to walk around in there.
March 4, 2011
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (bub8101p). Reuse only by permission.
In the lower right corner and center of the photograph of the Montezuma Street side of the Hotel St. Michael are some obvious basement openings. Perhaps when the sidewalk was raised, these were covered up and the tunnel myth may have started.