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 Archives and Library. 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.)
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.