SPECIAL SERIES : The Underground Issue
The Secret Tunnels Under SF
Urban legend or forgotton history?

On hands and knees, they crawl along an underground passage. Pieces of rock, dirt and cement fragments press into their palms and knee caps, keeping them from staying in one place too long.

The air is stagnant and thick with dust and age. They’ve moved far enough that no one would hear them if they called for help. Every few feet or so, they have to move wires or scrap metal out of their way. In the distance a lantern has been forgotten, or perhaps abandoned. Their path is littered with plastic caps, trash and decaying insects.

“Oh my god,” he says, surprised.

“What? What is it?” she asks.

“That is the largest cockroach I have ever seen!” he replies.

She’s too embarrassed to tell him she wants to leave. The curiosity is gone. She has changed her mind and doesn’t care what is at the end. But then everything goes dark. The top of the flashlight has come off and is lying in pieces in the dirt. As he fumbles to assemble it, she swears she can hear something moving toward them. They are suddenly underground, alone and blind. There in the darkness, it’s as if every sound is amplified. Finally, the light turns on again and they continue to the end of the passage. The tip that there were remnants of a secret tunnel that lead to something from the past, something cool and forbidden, turns out to be a forgotten staircase that leads nowhere.

Almost everyone has heard something about the secret tunnels under San Francisco. And while some may say they are an urban legend and don’t exist, others are sure they do. There aren’t many still alive that are willing to share what they know. The younger generation has only heard rumors or whispers about them and the ones who do know would never admit it to a stranger. If there are any of these secret locations still around, they’re surely being used for things that are illegal or profitable, and therefore private.

Many have stories or experiences that prove at one time or another there were plenty of tunnels that connected different locations. After years of building, expansions and earthquake retrofitting, the number of these passageways is dwindling. There may be a few tunnels left, but the people who own them are not quick to advertise their whereabouts.

San Francisco has a relatively short history compared to other great cities of the world. But in its brief existence, it has had a sordid past. Everyone agrees that Chinese immigration, brothels and speakeasies ran rampant in this city at one time or another. But so-called history experts are quick to wave off the idea of tunnels or passageways under San Francisco. Librarians at the California Historical Society called the idea “a myth,” an “urban legend” that “never truly existed.”

James Flood, a fifth generation San Franciscan and great-grandson of James C. Flood, a wealthy business man from the earliest days of the city, says that he is positive the tunnels did exist and has a newspaper clipping from 1940 to prove it. From his office on the eleventh floor of the Flood building at Market and Powell streets, he is happy to talk about his family’s history.

“I don’t know much,” says Flood. “But what I do know is the truth.” With square-framed glasses and a warm smile, Flood casually explains his family’s involvement with the underground tunnels. He kicks back in his office chair, putting both feet on his desk, crossed at the ankles, and his fingers interlaced behind his head.

A tunnel, which his grandmother didn’t know existed, was located in 1940 by city engineers who were starting construction for a new Nob Hill hotel. The entrance was discovered in the foundation of a mansion that belonged to the Hamilton family. Engineers followed the tunnel, well below street level for 50 yards. Nine feet wide and almost the same height, the ceiling was bricked in an arch shape. It was possibly lit by lanterns or torches at one time. The tunnel stretched straight and long under California Street and ended at the Flood Mansion, what is now the exclusive men’s Union Pacific Club. From the inside of both family mansions, there is no evidence that a tunnel ever existed or that something has been covered or hidden. Years later, when Flood was shown the newspaper clipping, he went to the Union Pacific Club basement to look for himself. He found nothing, not even a trace of it still being there. He has no idea if it is still there or if the city filled it in after its discovery in 1940.

Neither the Flood nor Hamilton families had any knowledge of the tunnels or who built them. Nor do they have any idea what purpose they originally served. Rumors spread that the tunnel was built because someone was having an affair and could more easily visit his mistress. Others say that sort of elaborate passageway could only have been built for something illegal. However, all of these ideas are just speculation and the true secrets remain buried in the tunnel. Back then, society operated on a different level.

“That was a time when people were much more secretive about their lives,” says Flood. “The tunnel was probably used for anything that the wealthy didn’t want the common class to know about. Remember that back then it was okay to kill someone if you had a good reason.”

Years after the Floods and Hamiltons closed up their below-ground connection, many were looking for ways to get business done away from the public eye. Some share their stories of earlier days about life below San Francisco.

. . .

Bill LeRand hangs up the phone. He exhales deeply and thinks for a minute. Then he stands up, puts on the jacket of his three-piece suit, and looks in his office mirror. He straightens his tie and places his hat squarely on his head, grabbing his briefcase.

“I’m going out for a three-martini lunch,” he says to his secretary.

“You’re going to miss President Kennedy’s speech,” she responds. But LeRand doesn’t answer. Knowing full well what a “three-martini lunch” implies, his secretary says she’ll see him tomorrow and returns to her typewriter.

LeRand hustles from the office building at Clay and Sansome, shaking his head to himself. He worries that the bank he is designing will never be built. In the three-block walk to his favorite watering hole, he stops briefly to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with other businessmen.

He finally arrives at the entrance of the bar, barely noticeable to the untrained eye. The wooden door is almost two inches thick and has obviously been kicked in more than once. A tarnished brown brass knob looks as if it could be ripped off if tugged on too hard. LeRand doesn’t reach for the knob, but uses the weight of his leg to help move the heavy door. The first step in is a step down and LeRand has to descend to the fourth or fifth step before he can turn to close the door behind him, the bottom of the door now at shoulder level. His eyes adjust quickly to the lone bulb shining above the bottom step. Daylight, now is completely gone.

LeRand blindly continues forward into darkness until he reaches another door that is completely hidden. He pulls on the handle to release a combination of lights, conversation and Sinatra’s latest hit. The four other men at the bar pause for a second to look then promptly refocus their attention to the drinks in front of them.

LeRand is in an underground bar with the few patrons who know of its location.

If LeRand shows up in the middle of the day, the bartender thinks, it can only mean one thing. He starts pouring gin over ice without even asking.

“This bank is never going to get finished if we have to keep stopping every time we find a buried ship,” says LeRand.

Almost 50 years ago, LeRand was the lead architect in charge of building the Bank of California building. They needed to dig 90 feet down to put in the vaults. The problem was the building site was completely filled in decades earlier with whatever there was laying around. This included old ships that had sailed into San Francisco Bay only to be retired. LeRand recalls thinking how frustrating it was to have to stop the project because of something buried. At that point the historical society would have to come in and take over until they had evaluated whatever was there.

Back then, LeRand was directly dealing with San Francisco’s buried history. Now, that experience is a part of history also, but in a different way. Pierro’s, the bar which LeRand would frequent when he wanted to knock off early from work, was a secret underground spot. It was a place where men could converse or do business, legal or not, away from the public eye. LeRand says the old bar location is just a vacant lot now, an empty space among towering office buildings, without a trace of the past.
Now 78-years-old, LeRand thinks most places like this are probably gone. “If any underground secret locations do still exist, they would be in Chinatown,” he says.

. . .

Unless you know someone who owns a business in Chinatown and is willing to talk, you will never see an underground tunnel. Once in a while you hear a snippet or clue that there is something down there. And then there are those who are given a glimpse without realizing that they are privileged enough to be a witness.

Mike Koenig walks down the street with the smell of pasta sauce and pesto lingering in his pores. He is looking forward to a hot shower to wash away the restaurant after a long week of work. He shaves morning and night, but yet his face always looks like it hasn’t seen a razor in days. His T-shirt, worn and tired, is still one of his favorites. The tattered baseball cap from his hometown stands out slightly in this West Coast metropolis. Most of the people he works with take the bus or a taxi home, but he prefers to use this opportunity to unwind, decompress and indulge in one of his favorite hobbies—a nice Cuban. He’s walking through Chinatown, his usual route from Union Square to North Beach, and he is the only one on the street. It’s deserted. Not even a car or taxi drives by. He suddenly sees decorations for the Chinese New Year parade and decides to take a detour to enjoy the festivities without the crowds.

He inhales a slow and experienced drag of his cigar while taking in the lanterns and banners overhead. Suddenly, he passes a grate in the sidewalk and stops to listen more closely. He can hear voices, a lot of voices, faintly coming from somewhere underground. He recognizes laughter, music and lots of conversation, but nothing he can distinguish. He turns around to look for someone else on the street, but he is still alone. Then he realizes the noise from his shoes is muffling the sounds from below and he stands completely still again. He listens closely once more, just to be sure. The sounds are there but just far enough away that he doubts his own hearing.

He slowly turns and walks away to finally find his way home, wondering where the noise was coming from. He always thought the stories people told about secret tunnels under Chinatown were a joke. Something you say to visitors, maybe to sell them something. But now he knows for sure. There is something under the street. Something not easily accessible to the average person. What’s going on down there? A party? Gambling? Maybe a little of both. The curiosity brings a smile to his face.







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