'Secret' Salem tunnels could see light of day

'Secret' Salem tunnels could see light of day

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – After decades lying dormant beneath the streets of downtown Salem, rooms frozen in time one day could be visible to the public. 

For the past four months, Rebecca Maitland, the creative director at Reed Opera House, and retired Linfield College historian John Ritter have been working to unearth hidden worlds in the core of Salem.

"There's a lot of history in Salem," Ritter said, "but you have to dig for it, literally."

Much of that history exists under some downtown Salem buildings constructed about a century ago.

Buildings in the city's business district, including Marion County Courthouse, were linked by tunnels that stretched to the Oregon State Penitentiary on State Street, Ritter said.

"People could go from one building to the next without being seen," he said. "Men could enter speakeasies, where illegal liquor was sold, card games were common and opium was smoked."

Ritter's most prized quarry is Salem's former Chinatown, which he believes to be below Liberty Street NE.

Historical records show Chinese immigrants came to Oregon around the time the Transcontinental Railroad was being constructed in the 1860s. The immigrants settled in Salem around the 1870s and early 1880s, with the population peaking at 300.

"Salem had a very active Chinatown; dozens of stores sold everything from tea to clean shirts," Ritter said.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act resulted in a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment in Salem, and most of the city's Chinese population headed south to San Francisco, Ritter said. Others stayed in Salem, going underground, where they set up gambling, bootlegging and opium dens, he said.

So far, Ritter and Maitland have not been able to uncover the elusive Chinatown.

The pair said they are stymied by walls built to limit access to the city's tunnel system.

It doesn't appear there is anything that would prohibit them from digging, save, perhaps, a building's owner.

Sean O'Day, the city's deputy city manager, said the city would not have a role in the pair's unearthing efforts, unless it were to affect a right of way, such as a city street.

"Our role would be supporting John (Ritter)," O'Day said. "We think what's he's doing is exciting and intriguing, and if there's a role for the city to play, we'll be more than happy to engage in it and support John. We wish John good luck as he continues his work."

Ritter is hoping his research will culminate in underground tours in the near future.

Kathy Goss, president of the Go Downtown Salem! Board, welcomed the idea.

"It would add to the interest in downtown Salem," she said. "Anything that helps businesses would be good."

In the meantime, Ritter and Maitland continue to trek into underground spaces with flashlights in hand, peering through whatever slight crack a door or wall may have, in the hope of finding more pieces of Salem's underground history.

They've made their way through spider webs and secret catacombs, finding an antique bank vault, an intact gold drop, a 1920s stairwell that goes to nowhere, a 1930s grocery drop with painted grocery aisles and lockers, a 1980s disco, a 1920s mural in what was once an underground cafe and a number of odd architectural finds.

"What I found most interesting were the rusting elevators, the empty shafts where people lived, (and) dusty, rusted chains hanging as silent witnesses to a bustling business long gone," Ritter said.

Even so, he's determined to find the underground Chinatown, even if he has to dig it out inch by inch.

- Information from: Statesman Journal