Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ooo ... Tunnels

Monday magazine did a series this week on “Exploring Victoria,” including a bit with me about the much-rumoured tunnels under the city. I’m flattered they considered me an expert on the subject (see pages 28-35 in the book), but the real pros hang out on the Urban Exploration Resource forum.

A lot of the stuff on the forum's Victoria thread is loony chat about how the city’s storm-drain network may have been used by satanic cults, etc. But local UE folks have also done some serious exploring – especially the extraordinary "J Peterman" – and posted photos of their discoveries.

As I mention in the book, a bona fide tunnel connects the Parliament Buildings to the Douglas building at 617 Government Street. The UE guys got into it, and took photos you can see here. Although it’s not long, there's also a passage under the Bay Street bridge connecting the Ralmax scrapyard on the north side to the cement works on the south – purportedly the remnant of a tunnel used by streetcars that came across the vanished Rock Bay bridge and then looped up to Bay Street to cross over to Esquimalt. I suspect it’s too new for that, but you can see it for yourself here.

A manhole near the Johnson Street bridge leads into a flooded crawlspace, which you can see here. Another crawlspace, under Craigdarroch Castle, is visible here.

Since the city doesn’t have many real tunnels, urban explorers have been probing the city’s sewers and storm drains – a dangerous hobby, since they may trap carbon monoxide from the streets above. One of the largest is an egg-shaped brick sewer built around 1910, which followed the course of a stream draining from Fernwood’s Harris Lake, down today's Bay Street and out to Rock Bay; see photos here and here. More storm drains also run out at Dallas Road (see here), near Mayfair Mall (see here), and under the Ross Bay cemetery (see here), likely built to empty the swampland where Fairfield Plaza is today. And, of course, there are the numerous culverts of Bowker Creek, which runs all the way from UVic to Oak Bay; one photo is above, and there are more here.

An interesting political angle to the UE discussions is that many of the underground passages are being used by the homeless, because they’re routinely kicked out of Victoria’s public spaces – last week, for example, the city rousted a dozen vagrants out of Beacon Hill Park. (For all its apparent socialist tendencies, Canada has nothing like Sweden’s allamansrättar, a law entitling everyone the right to camp on any land for at least one night.) So where are the homeless supposed to go? One solution was hinted at by a sympathetic letter-writer to the Times Colonist today, who pointed out that Portland has a legal tent city named Dignity Village. If Victoria wised up, it would permit a similar encampment – and dig some real tunnels to put the urban legends and amateur sewer inspections to rest.

UPDATE (July 25, 2006): The intrepid “J. Peterman” has done it again. Click here to see his new photos of a creepy sewer under Douglas Street, popular with the junkies.

UPDATE (January 30, 2008): A new film has emerged about Victoria's tunnels. For more info, see my post here.

UPDATE (July 21, 2008): A reader in the Netherlands with a fascination for subterranean landscapes (take a look at his blog here) directed me to a wonderful item on the superb BLDGBLOG about the allure of the underground city. I agree wholeheartedly with BLDGBLOG's sentiment: “Today's city planners need to read more things like this!” So do Victoria's urban explorers.

UPDATE (December 21, 2014): You've heard of street art, but how about below-street art? A reader recently sent me a link to an interesting project, putting cosmic graffiti in the "Hall of Wonders" to make a statement about long-term perspectives and the threat of climate change. See the artwork here, and then read the artist's further explanations on the UER forum here.


At 3:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. The old folk tales come out in the wash, yay. Now let's hear about the secretive Masonic Temple and Odd Fellow's Hall, please. I meant to check that out on Canada Day but didn't get a chance in the end. I'm so curious. Bought the book, btw, and was stunned you gave eveything away about our little sweet town. Came across it haphazardly at Bolen Books on a visit. Love the cover, too. Hey, look... It's from inside that Motel... (!!)haha. Never seen the interior of that place but always wondered, of course, who stays there? Not many is what would be gathered by the appearance, though prime location.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous B. Lowe Grownd said...

Re: The alledged Chinatown Tunnels:

Something that exists but is relatively unknown is a secret. Is there a term for something that doesn't actually exist yet everyone knows about it?

At 11:30 PM, Blogger ross said...

Anonymous, it turns out that the Surf Motel (where the cover shot was taken) is quite popular with German tourists. You really should visit it sometime - it hasn't changed since the 1960s.

B. Lowe Ground, I think what you're talking about is an "urban legend."

Thanks for the comments!

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That tunnel isn't under Douglas St. It's near Mount Douglas Park. Also, he wasn't in a tunnel under Craigdarroch Castle he was in a utility tunnel in a school near Oak Bay. The flooded crawlspace is underneath the Victoria Regent Hotel at 1234 Warf St. The entrance to which has since been sealed off. I know cause I was there.


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No mention of the tunnel from the basement of the empress to the butterfly gardens? Anyone who's worked in the back of the house at the Empress that's ever had to go down to the storage basement has likely heard it at least. Years ago, as an employee there,we'd have to go down by the one elevator from the kitchen, the only entrance to the basement, and there was a semi-crap gate that blocked the entrance of the tunnel off, but you could hear the tide echo down it.
Was always told it went to the Butterfly garden from the days when it was the pool and laundry facility for the empress, but never went into it (on account of the gate). Anyhoo... rant aside...
The surf motel is a definite gem.
Thanks for the links, interesting read!


At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you mean Crystal Gardens. Butterfly Gardens is in Brentwood, that would make for a very long tunnel.

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The douglas drain in the update isn't under douglas st...far from it

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Brussel Sprouts said...

So if the Douglas drain isn’t under Douglas, is it in Douglas creek, beside mount Doug?


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