Filmmaker Nikki Charnstrom first heard about the legendary Flagstaff tunnels last October. But when she started asking around for more information about the maze of passageways under the streets of downtown Flagstaff, she ran into brick walls.
“Everyone I asked said no, they didn’t know about the tunnels, so it sparked my interest in forgotten history. That’s what motivated me to begin my journey of this project,” said Charnstrom. The underground labyrinth has been rumored to house Chinese opium dens, bordellos and smuggling rings during Arizona’s early territorial days.
“With the tunnels being as old as they are, you can’t find info online, so I had to improvise,” said the Northern Arizona University senior. “My first stop was Pioneer Museum. Joe Meehan had a fire insurance map, and street by street, he educated me on the tunnel system.”
“The map was produced by Sandborn Fire Insurance Company and covered the areas of town that they insured,” explained Arizona Historical Society Curator Joe Meehan. “We have slides from 1890, 1892, 1895, 1901 and more. They give bird’s-eye views of every building in town and were color-coded to tell what the buildings are made of. Today, green buildings are looked at as environmentally conscious, but back then a green building indicated a structure containing hazardous material, such as a tin smith, photo studio or mortuary. It’s the opposite of what it is today.” The map did not illustrate where the tunnels ran, but Meehan used the map to show Charnstrom the tunnels of which he was aware.
“Joe was my main contact and got me started with the back story – the history and what he knew. He showed me the maps, although the tunnels weren’t on the maps. But he told me who to go talk to and from there I went to Jim Babbitt, Blendz and Marley’s. Both Joe and Jim helped me a lot,” explained the filmmaker, who is majoring in journalism with an emphasis in photo journalism and documentary studies.
Blendz Winery is located in the Fronske Photography Studio, built in 1907 and which probably was labeled green on the fire insurance maps. The tunnel that connects Blendz’s basement to the rest of historic downtown Flagstaff houses is filled with utility cables and ductwork. In the film, Diane Williamson, Blendz co-owner, describes the tunnels as “reminiscent of the Old West.”
Charnstrom also interviewed Joseph Hanby, general manager at Majerle’s Sports Grill. The barricaded tunnel is part of the wall next to his desk. “I’d like to knock the bricks down sometime…there could be some cool stuff behind that sealed wall,” he said with a smile at the camera. “It’s in my office… just knowing that behind me, people used to escape through that tunnel for their card games is really cool.”
“It was used as escape tunnel during illegal card games,” Meehan confirmed. The tunnel in the basement of the building on the northeast corner of Route 66 and San Francisco Street was originally built in 1883 connected to a building just north of there. “It was the old Martan’s location, and the tunnel came up right in the middle of their kitchen,” explained Meehan. But, as for the rumors of opium dens or people living in the tunnels, Meehan said, “There is no evidence of actual occupation of the Chinese in the tunnels. I would like to see evidence if there is any.”
In the film, prominent Flagstaff historian Jim Babbitt, co-owner of Babbitt’s Wholesale, Inc., concurred, “A whole network of large tunnels …were said to be the home for various types of shady activities … opium dens and smuggling. But …I can tell you that that scenario is really just a myth.”
In the 1880s-90s, there was a strong and contributing Chinese population, but the business owners were not always welcome in Flagstaff. That prejudice could have started the rumors of illicit underground activities. “They had restaurants and laundries; their Chinese cemetery was in the area now occupied by the Adult Center,” said Meehan. “Every time that there was a fire, you blamed the outsiders. The Chinese had laundries and restaurants that used wood fires. But it seems they failed to realize that everyone did. Everyone cooked and heated with wood burning stoves. [After the fires,] they ran the Chinese out of town. They would move to Williams, live there for a while and then move back to Flagstaff. Emma Gonzales was a local businesswoman, and she defended the Chinese through letters to the editor.”
“I was disappointed that there wasn’t that much shady activity,” revealed the filmmaker. “And I was disappointed that I couldn’t find many people that knew about the tunnels. But I wanted to go after the story and tell the truth whatever that would entail.”
Charnstrom’s film debuted Jan. 8 at the “Night at the Museum” series held at Pioneer Museum and was sponsored by the Arizona Historical Society – Northern Chapter. She described her overall takeaway from the project: “It’s important to stick with something that you are passionate about. Don’t let obstacles drive you away. Go after your dreams. Do something that you don’t even know that you can do. Even though it’s something really hard, you’ll come out more skilled, more talented and a more insightful person.” FBN
By Stacey Wittig, FBN
Next Night at the Museum: Kevin Schindler presents The Far End of the Journey: The Clark Telescope and Other Treasures of Lowell Observatory. Feb. 12 6:30-8:30. Please RSVP. Limited to no more than 40 people.
The seven-minute film can be viewed on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBIcgACH7H0
The Pioneer Museum
2340 North Fort Valley Road
Flagstaff, AZ 86001