What Is It About Tunnels?

subway cave

Subway Cave, a lava tube near Lassen Volcanic National Park. Nothing to do with the tunnels in this post.

Does every town in California, or the nation, have stories about secret tunnels under the buildings and under the streets? I know Chico does — maybe your town does too.


Stansbury House in Chico

Just last week a fellow I know said he knew the man who used to be the caretaker at Stansbury House. The man’s name was Tom, and Tom took him down into the cellar and showed him the tunnel that the Chinese used to get to Dr. Stansbury. This sounded bogus to me, but I have never been in the basement of the Stansbury House, so how would I know?

I mentioned it to John Gallardo, who has been the caretaker at Stansbury House for many years. He told me that there are no tunnels under Stansbury House and there was never a caretaker named Tom.

And when you think about it: Where would that tunnel go? Dr. Stansbury didn’t live next door to Chinatown, not the old one and not the new one. How many blocks would that tunnel have to run?

My friend Sandy Hill told me that when she was going to Chico High School, she heard stories that John Bidwell had a tunnel from his Mansion to the creek so he could sneak out and go the Indian village.

Guess what? No tunnels running under the lawn at Bidwell Mansion either. At one time the Indian village (or rancheria) was quite close to the mansion, but Annie was upset with the wailings she heard during a two-day funeral, and so in March 1869 (a year after Annie arrived) Bidwell had the rancheria moved a mile away. That would have made for a very long tunnel!

More plausible are the stories of tunnels under the buildings of downtown Chico. In many cities the old buildings have basements, and often these basements were connected, one building to another. That would facilitate moving goods, going from building to building out of the weather, and maybe more clandestine activities.  Basements could be used for opium dens, gambling dens, and speakeasies.


Underground opium den in San Francisco, 1906. Image courtesy of Bancroft Library and Calisphere.

My husband says he saw this kind of tunnel and room arrangement under an old building in downtown Bakersfield many years ago. He was told the room had been a Chinese opium den, and that may well be true.

If anyone has an authentic story about spooky basements and tunnels in Chico, I’d like to hear it. Just don’t tell me about a tunnel that runs under Chico Creek, so that John Bidwell could go to a saloon and get a drink without Annie knowing.


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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1 Response to What Is It About Tunnels?

  1. Robert Park says:

    In High School i was a Dishwasher at Noah’s Chapter 2 restaurant.2nd and Broadway in Chico. 1976. We could peer through the wall slats down into the basement which was lined with seating booths. I was told it was a Speakeasy. Covered in dust. Frozen in time. I wonder if it is still there.

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