Search This Blog

Monday, March 4, 2019



The first week of September 2000 remains a memorable one for me even now, almost nineteen years later. It was the long-anticipated millennium year—thus, I wanted Doug and I to do something memorable to celebrate. A couple of years earlier I had started writing a new western romance—Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon, and I wanted to explore the site of the wolf caves that cattle rustlers had used to camp in while hiding from the law. I’ve been fortunate to have always explored the settings for my books. Hence, the research trip.

We had never been to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, nor had we ever stayed in a bed-and-breakfast. By the time we arrived, settled in and went out for supper, there was little else to do except decide which underground tour to take: The Al Capone Tour or The Passage to Fortune Tour as there wasn’t time to take in both. The Tunnels of Moose Jaw (website HERE) had just opened that summer. We registered for the Chinese tour, explored the displays and waited with two other couples. Soon, we were led down a flight of stairs to a small theater room to watch a short documentary.  

The film no sooner finished when suddenly a door flew open and a man charged in, yelling and calling us vile names. He ordered us to come with him. Startled and puzzled, we anxiously followed him into a dirt-walled hallway that led into a maze of corridors. We peeked into the area where a huge laundry operation used to be, then rooms used for sleeping and dismal opium dens where it cost a worker two days’ wages for a brief, drug-induced oblivion from this underground hell.

At times our tour guide was in character and other times he explained the function of each area. Then we arrived at the final destination. I remember it being a big, rectangular room with a long eating table, mismatched chairs and directly behind, three stalls with doors and buckets on the ground. By this time my heart ached, imagining the day-to-day misery of these poor, mistreated Chinese eating here and having stinking latrines behind them.

Giving us a moment, our guide said, “Now imagine what this was really like a century ago” and pressed a button. The room erupted into a cacophony of sounds: clanging pipes, hissing steam, rumbling machinery, the buzz of voices…. I went into sensory overload, imagining the steamy heat, the stench of the latrines, and the suffocating, very real, nostril-clogging smell of earth from the walls around us.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Gulping in fresh air outside, glad to be free and feeling guilty because the same couldn’t be said for those poor souls who had toiled for months, even years, under such intolerable conditions, I couldn’t get that horror out of my mind and it haunts me to this day.

In the late 1870’s, Ottawa undertook the building of a railroad to span the country. In the West, many Chinese workers were employed because they were cheap labor and were skilled in the use of dynamite to blast the railroad through the Rocky Mountains. After the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Chinese remained, even began bringing their families from China.

Trouble broke out in 1908 at the CPR depot in Moose Jaw. Chinese workers were beaten because it was felt they were taking jobs away from Canadian men. The Ottawa government was forced to step in and quickly created a (despised) head tax to (hopefully) curb the tide of immigration from China. Thus, the persecuted Chinese feared for their lives and unable to pay the head tax for every family member, even babies, they hid in the underground tunnels of buildings owned by legal Chinese immigrants. They worked secretly underground, providing laundry service for the hotels in exchange for food, supplies and lodging.

Prohibition in the United States (and Canada) in the 1920’s brought further corruption to Moose Jaw because of its proximity to Chicago via the railroads and because of its ideal remote location. The corrupt police chief and reportedly all of his force aided and abetted Al Capone’s mob in gambling, prostitution and storing booze in the underground tunnels.

Illegal whiskey was smuggled in via rail cars and was unloaded or loaded through a shed in the rail yard that had direct access to a tunnel, which ran under the train station. The police chief (1905-1922) was so powerful that for twenty years not even the mayor could put a stop to his iron-fisted control. Apparently, the Chinese businessmen and the bootleggers were in cahoots, sharing the tunnels for their nefarious operations.

For 75 years the City officials denied the existence of these tunnels, which connected many downtown hotels and buildings underground in the previous century. Then one day a bus fell through Main Street, revealing a maze of tunnels, and the ugly truth was revealed about one of the “wildest frontier towns in the Canadian West”.

Picture-taking was not allowed on the tour, so sadly, I have no photos to share of the tunnels. The tunnels are open year-round. Perhaps this will entice you to visit Moose Jaw, which has a lot to offer visitors beside the tunnels. There is also an aviation museum on the outskirts of the city.

According to my research, these passages would have been built in the late 1890s to early 1900s. “Most of the tunnel structure would have been in place as basement rooms and access corridors for the steam engineers long before the major influx of Chinese to Moose Jaw. Some may have worked and lived in these spaces to avoid prosecution for illegal status or persecution because of race. The earliest use was as utility tunnels between buildings. The steam engineers who maintained the boilers constructed these access passageways so they would not have to exit one building to get to the next.” It saved time, but also was welcome in winter when temperatures dipped well below zero.

It’s never been confirmed if Al Capone actually visited Moose Jaw, but some of his mob hired young boys as messengers, paying them and even teaching them to play poker.

Moose Jaw was founded in 1882 due to it being chosen as a site for the Canadian Pacific Railway and by 1885 was a thriving town. Settlements along the CPR line quickly developed into permanent communities. The name Moose Jaw comes from a Cree name for the place, moscâstani-sîpiy, meaning “a warm place by the river.” The first two syllables, moscâ-, sound remarkably like “moose jaw”. Also, three creeks in the area, when sketched on paper, loosely resemble the jaw of a moose.

A popular attraction in Moose Jaw is the fiberglass moose statue. His name is Mac.

Creative Commons image -

On the ride home, I began writing a poem to help myself come to grips with what I’d seen and the misery it conjured in my mind. This is a terrible black mark in our history—yet another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Alas, I’ll have to save the wolf caves for my April blog.


                - Elizabeth Clements

"Be Off! Go Away!
Your kind aren't wanted here."

We died like black flies in autumn
Building your mighty railroad;
Treated worse than the deaf and dumb,
We staggered beneath our load.

Where will I go? What will I do?
I'm a stranger in your land.

Cold, heavy snow clings to my back,
The wind cuts through my clothes;
I seek a cave or empty shack
And a fire to warm my toes.

"Hey, you! Have you paid your head tax?
I thought not. Come with me."

Strong, brutal fingers clamp my arm
And shake me like a dog,
My heart thunders with alarm,
Despair creeps over me, gray as fog.

Why do you hate us so?
Beneath our skin we're all the same.

Struggling, I'm dragged against my will
Down a flight of wooden stairs,
An earthy stench near makes me ill;
I fall hard, but no one cares.

Why do you attack us and call us names?
An animal is kinder to its own.

Dim rooms swarm with shadows and I cry
For my people stooped with shame;
For years we’ve toiled, not seen the sky--
Can prejudice be to blame?

 Oh, no, what's to become of us?
I weep for the misery in our eyes

Days blur into years without sunshine
In tunnels of endless nights;
"Coolies" can't complain or whine
Nor get pity from the "whites".

The stench of the latrines make us ill;
Pigs have cleaner sties than us.

Leaky water pipes hiss and steam,
Soiled laundry's piled sky-high;
Leaving this nightmare is our dream
So we can live before we die.

The opium lures me into oblivion--
Two days' wages is the price.

Deep despair mingles with my sweat,
My body's wracked with pain;
Three more years to pay off the head tax
Before I'll hold my wife again.

Amidst this madness, I caress your picture;
Your dear image keeps me sane.

Five years I've spent in this hell on earth
I've scrimped and saved my pay,
Made friends and shared moments of mirth,
Which sometimes saved my day.

An understanding touch or smile
Gives me strength to struggle on.

Despite the deep wounds carved by hate
My faith helped my soul survive;
While in my heart, the love of my mate
Got me through this hell alive.

Oh, pure sweet air and bright blue sky!
Freedom, I embrace you. 

Here is an interesting article about the tunnels <click

Beneath A Horse-Thief Moon


  1. Pretty potent stuff and quite fascinating. Your poem was powerful also. Thanks for the info. (And yes, that border trade of booze is quite the story) Doris

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Doris. It's been 19 years since I walked through those tunnels, so you can see what effect it still has on me, writing from memory. The Capone Tunnels opened June 15th and The Passage to Fortune on July 15th, 2000 so the tours were still very new. A former resident of Moose Jaw came home either for a visit or to work, I can't remember which, at about the time of the cave-in and I believe he was the one who initiated the idea of the tunnels as a tourist attraction. Havre, Montana also has an underground development dating back to the days of outlaws, etc. Planned a research trip to take that in as well as Fort Benton, but blew a tire just outside of Havre, which also blew our sightseeing excursion. So many places yet to see, explore, and write about. Thanks for stopping by, Doris.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I have a real respect for anyone who can venture underground and especially for those who spent their days working there. I have a feeling there are many secrets to be uncovered yet. Loved the poem.

    1. Glad you loved my poem, Christine. When something affects me deeply, I find writing a poem helps me through the experience. I even did that one year when taking down our Christmas tree, which was dangerously brittle by the end of January. So I wrote a poem and concentrating on the words, got me past my sadness. I also wrote a long poem about war, the tragedy of 9/11 and misbehaving little sons. When my mom died of cancer, I was with her all morning, then the nurses said they wanted to tidy her up and I went to a computer and worked on a poem about her and then a friend came to me and said my mom was gone. I drew comfort that even though I wasn't holding her hand, I was thinking and writing about her when she went to the other side. Sorry, didn't mean to make this so long-winded. I guess I'm in a nostalgic mind set today. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. That's incredible and horrible what the Chinese endured. I had no idea. Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth, and your poem was very moving.

    1. I had no knowledge of the Chinese people being so persecuted until we toured the Passage to Fortune tunnel. I knew they were "expendable" during the building of the railroad through the mountains. That was horrible enough. Then to walk through those earthen tunnels and hear about their lives underground, I was stunned. I guess my horrified reaction came through in my poem. Thank you, for your kind words and for stopping by, Kristy.

  5. very interesting article! When I was a small child, I used to play in what I though was an old house. It was actually a station on a coach line, one of the earliest in Kentucky. There were three tunnels running from under it and we actually went into them. When parents found out the tunnels were blocked up. Turns out they were tunnels created for when the Native Americans attacked the coach house. The place was like a little fortress, but in case they couldn't hold, they could escape by the tunnels they were hundreds of yards in different directions. They built a subdivision on top of the tunnels and have no idea they were still there. The old coach house was bulldozed down without a thought. So much history just ignored.

    1. I agree with you that so much history is ignored, especially now in our troubled times. What an amazing childhood memory for you, Deborah. This reminds me of the underground escapes for slaves as well as people who were persecuted for their religion and were helped to escape to Nova Scotia. There are so many amazing stories in history...think Anne Frank. My childhood experience of tunnels was a tremendous snowfall when I was five. My mom was a housekeeper for a farmer at the time and he and my older shoveled deep paths through the snow to the garage and the outhouse. Looking back it seemed like tunnels but obviously wasn't, just very high-piled snow. My mom and I walked to town, which was eight miles on the road, but we went cross-country and walked level with the power lines....yes the snow was that deep and were huge drifts like the Sahara Desert. It was a brilliant blue sky and sunshine. I don't remember if my brother came with us. We took the train to the city and stayed with relatives until spring thaw. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your childhood memory.

  6. Lovely poem. Underground. Tunnels. Nope. Not for this girl. lol Interesting history, though. Thanks for sharing it. I'm looking forward to your next installment.

  7. Kaye, you stopped by just as I was writing replies.Thank you so much for posting my blog and adding the pic of the moose and some labels when I couldn't access this page to post. I'm glad you liked my poem. I really have no desire to revisit the Chinese tunnels, once was enough because the memory is still too vivid. However, "dirt" enters into my next blog about the wolf caves, but at least they're above-ground lol. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I hope you get a chance to check out the links as they contain some interesting comments from oldtimers who worked the Capone tunnels for the mob, messengers boys were paid pennies to deliver messages, and some lads were even taught how to play poker. I think I would have gone away with a different impression of the Capone tunnels, so perhaps we just might make another trip to Moose Jaw. And of course, it's always fun to do more research in the Big Muddy area that was plagued by outlaws. More on that next time. I hope I can find my photographs.

  9. What a dark and painful history those tunnels represent. I feel so badly for the Chinese who were beaten and persecuted. Ya know, I just can't imagine going down into those tunnels in the dead of winter. Al Capone seemed to be just about everywhere.
    I love Mac the Moose!
    I felt the sorrow and loneliness in the poem you wrote. I see the tunnels really had an affect on you. I enjoyed reading your blog and the poem you composed.
    All the best to you Elizabeth.

    1. Throughout history we continually see man's inhumanity to man. Greed and thirst for power drive this cruelty and it's just as prevalent in the world today. One just has to see the news or documentary on tv or read a newspaper. It makes me want to find a mountain cabin and hide out the rest of my life. Hate and love start in the home. So I strive for good relationships with family and friends. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. You are always so kind. I would love to meet you someday.