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.