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.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tunnels Exposed

“This city pretends that things have been covered over and sealed up,” John McFetrick says, pointing to the sidewalk. “But they’re still there.”

Standing in front of the Swans hotel, you might think he’s talking about its shuttered basement, and its possible connection to the mythic tunnels of Victoria’s Chinatown. But the 42-year-old filmmaker is also referring to the city’s economic underclass, its homeless population – and as he sees it, both senses of the underground are intimately related.

McFetrick explores this link in his short film Under The Garden City (screening again this Thursday, February 7 at Plan B nightclub at 7:00 pm as part of the Victoria Film Festival). Tying Victoria’s biggest social issue to its most popular urban legend might seem a stretch – or at least it did until last December, when several homeless people supposedly set a fire in the former Empress hotel laundry tunnel under Douglas Street. To McFetrick, the incident proves his thesis. “The fact is, there are spaces under Victoria, and they’re being used by street people. And the city doesn’t want to acknowledge those spaces, or the people in them.”

McFetrick started working on the film in 2005. Armed with a modest Canada Council grant, the UVic writing grad started hanging around in darker corners of town, chatting up street people about hiding places, and paying for info. (“I guess I should consider the grant a redistribution of wealth,” he chuckles.) At the same time, he initiated a discussion thread on the Urban Explorers’ Resource online forum to find others interested in literally getting to the bottom of Victoria’s underground.

Three years later, the UER thread has evolved into an extraordinary amateur record of Victoria’s gastrointestinal system, containing hundreds of photos taken by adventurers inside the city’s storm drains, sewers (the one under Bay Street is pictured right, thanks to J. Peterman), service corridors, and two officially acknowledged tunnels. (The other one runs from the Parliament Buildings under Government Street to the Douglas Building.) McFetrick has, in turn, incorporated video from these explorations into his impressionistic 20-minute film – revealing to Victorians, for the first time, the guts of the vast extended basements around Market Square, and a two-kilometre-long sewer tunnel not far from downtown.

He’s especially proud of the latter footage. The sewer tunnel isn’t unknown – there are archived photographs of men digging it just after World War I – but suggests there could be more like it. “Skeptics say you can’t have tunnels in a city built on bedrock. But this proves otherwise,” McFetrick says. “This was a mining town. We had explosives factories. All sorts of things could’ve been done.”

Like what? McFetrick says he believes there are some underground passages in Chinatown, despite the official story that such things don’t exist. He points out that many businesses along Fisgard Street have basements (Silk Road, for example, has its spa downstairs), which have never really been opened up to archeologists. He’s interviewed old city engineers, though. “Pencil-pushers don’t know anything. Speak to the guys who worked the shovels 40, 50 years ago, and they’ll tell you something’s there.”

It seems every city on the west coast has legends about Chinatown tunnels. And in a few cases, those stories have turned out to be true: Portland already has “Shanghai Tunnel Tours”, and last fall historians (left) discovered tunnels in Fresno, California during a neighbourhood revitalization project.

The prospect of a sanitized underground doesn’t cheer McFetrick, however. In many cases, he says, it’s better to let the mystery be. “It seems cities only admit to their tunnels when they see an economic benefit. It would be sad if Victoria did it at the expense of those who need shelter the most.”

For more on tunnels, see my previous post here.

17 Comments:

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous don nixon said...

hello my name is don nixon
some years ago 80's i did some electrical work on the fire alarm system in don myes I think thats how you spell it. they gave me full range of the building. Down in the very bottom of the basement i found a door. it is right up againest a very large brick wall. it was tight but i was able to open it.I walked in. it was very dark.my flashlight shinned down a long narrow street with brick bulidings, door ways, light fixtures, windows, signs. they were about one to two stories high i beleive it streached out under fisgard street going 90 degrees to that street. all very dusty but very well preserved have you heard about thta at all.

 
At 3:22 PM, Blogger ross said...

Very interesting! Please send me an email (my address is at the top of the page) and let me know how to contact you. I'd love to buy you coffee or lunch and hear more!

 
At 8:47 PM, Anonymous KublaKhan said...

Fascinating. I'd like to buy you a coffee as well.

 
At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

don, hey let me buy you a coffee too, shadowmounds@gmail.com, I'm writing a book and need your expertise

 
At 7:25 PM, Anonymous Busted Button said...

someone buy me a coffee!

 
At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father used to rent the space which is now the Rogers cel phone outlet in the old Cross meat building and you can enter the tunnels from the basement there. They seem to go toward city hall and across to the Odd fellows hall which is a mason frat house. There is also an old chinese restaurant on the top floor and last time I checked about ten years ago the whole thing was still in tact. I was a bike courier for years as well and found tunnels from 617 government st to the leg and some say all the to city hall and the mason building.

 
At 5:36 AM, Blogger Wes Branch said...

kublakhan ive been following you off a few diff sites, your interest is as deep as mine, as i live in the city, im going to explore today when i wake up, its going to be great

 
At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want to know what's underground talk to the old hydro guys...

 
At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like someone to buy me some of whatever Don Nixon is smoking.

 
At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Phil Atkinson said...

There is a tunnel from 617 Govt (the Douglas Building) to the Leg ... I have used it many times, but it was closed off for safety reasons in the 90s.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger Nicole Faucher said...

I used to haul documents/papers daily through the underground tunnel to the Ministers & Deputy Ministers in the Legislative Buildings in the 1990's before it was shut down. That dimly lit, low ceilinged, narrow tunnel had at least 2 cast iron doors. Never forgot it and never will.

 
At 7:41 AM, Anonymous Joanne Degirolamo said...

Would luv to get down there. Anyone else?

 
At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a friend who owned a business down the same block as Don Mee's. He showed me an entrance to tunnels, so I know they're there.

 
At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also been in the underground preserved street tunnel that runs 90 degrees from Fisgard to Pandora, so l fully believe Don Dixon's account. I remember a lot of the numbers on the doors had weird half numbered addresses like Suite # 09½. I got there by skulking around a bit, climbing onto the roof of one of the buildings on north side of Pandora, down into a courtyard that's hidden from the street via fire escapes and a tree, and there was a entrance to this tunnel. A open stairway leading down to the underground street. It came right out onto the next block over on Fisgard via a long steep set of stairs at the other end, and through an nondescript unmarked door.

 
At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going with my gut feeling of what I've heard about the hidden doorways under China Town in downtown Victoria through the years I've been told by men people even my elders have said that Chinatown is the oldest part of Victoria I was told this is where they run opinon that they refined from our poppyseed flowers and had small dens under China Town so if this is a lie why do they have half number apartments for insence like they have always listed for rent number #24.1/2 small apt.suitable for one . T.L.B from Victoria live here for 48yrs I believe that it's all true.August 10th 2016

 
At 1:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can somebody please post pictures of the entrances and how to get there?? I wanna explore too!!

 
At 11:09 AM, Blogger Evan said...

How does one get to the preserved street tunnel off Pandora?!?

 

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