I remember, when I was a kid growing up here in Kingman, going on a field trip to the Hotel Beale and touring the inside of the hotel. It was in the mid-90s, and I was in the early years of elementary school. I don't remember much about the tour of the hotel itself, but the tunnel that ran underneath the hotel and popped up across the street near the railroad tracks was hard to forget.
I was a small guy at the time, and so I remember the tunnel being much bigger than it actually was. The walls were dirt and, in some places, cinderblock. A pipe ran across the ceiling down the length of the tunnel. It ran right underneath the road, and I remember the tour guide telling us to listen for the traffic above us. A shack at the corner of Fourth Street and Andy Devine housed the stairs going back up to the street.
Almost 20 years later, that shack is gone. I peeked into the Hotel Beale this week and saw nothing but dust and dirt. If I were to start digging up information on the hidden underground of Kingman, maybe I needed to start somewhere else.
On and off for the better part of a month, in between working on other stories, I stopped by many of the businesses downtown and asked about the tunnels in Kingman. The results were vague and unfruitful.
Employees would mention that, yes, they had basements and hallways that resembled tunnels, but none led anywhere of note. Business owners specifically mentioned that many of them were boarded up or filled in, and discouraged anyone from trying to get down there.
Nearly all of the exterior entrances are either gone or locked up, and after many walks downtown I found no doors or accessible entrances from the outside. That is for the best, as I've had plenty of curious spelunkers ask me how to get down there.
The very little information I could find that was documented referenced the Chinese, and how many of them lived under the businesses and slept in the basements.
That's not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the late 1800s, the Chinese living in Kingman were treated much as illegal immigrants are today, with arguably more hurtful rhetoric. These letters were responding to fire that did a lot of damage.
May 21, 1898: Mohave County Miner
We hope that [when] Kingman arises from its ashes the heathen Chinese will have disappeared from the town. They are a curse to any community in which they are allowed to settle. 50,000$ per year is a small estimate of the amount of money they take out of Kingman yearly without a cent of benefit. They greater part of this money goes to China. If people who build houses refuse to rent to the Chinese then the problem of how to get rid of this undesirable element will be solved.
June 4, 1898: Mohave County Miner
Since the fire the white restaurants are getting the bulk of the trade. This is as it should be. Heretofore you people have ranted and raved about Chinese cheap labor, but they patronized the Chinese restaurants just the same. Let us all patronize our own race and aid in building up a town exempt from Chinese dens.
An undated note recalling the same time period read:
In the early days when Kingman was but a small village, there lived a Chinese man by the name of Fawn Chee, who was a baker. He wore his long hair in a braid down his back, called a Que. He baked bread, cookies and doughnuts and peddled them around from house to house in a small covered wagon drawn by a burro. He would ring a little bell as he went from house to house selling his baked goods. One evening as he was closing his little bakery, two outlaws came in to rob him of his few dollars and cut his throat. However, Fawn Chee recovered, he left town and was never heard of again.
While no mention of the tunnels was found in those papers, Charlie Lum shed some light on life underground in a conversation from 1981 with Glen Johnson and James Miller:
Lum: I lived in the basement, quite some time. Six years. Below the City Drug Store. And Bill Ye and [name unclear] lived in the basement under the restaurant that was in the Brunswick Hotel building.
Johnson: There were no tunnels. Whoever told that story, it is untrue. I have heard about a tunnel going from the Harvey House to the Beale Hotel. There was no tunnel.
Lum: All Chinese men live in the basement. Every one live in the basement. Where we slept, it was like a bunk, with a curtain on it.
Johnson: Whether they worked in a mine or a restaurant, it was customary for them to have a cot and a curtain across it. I do not know the reason for it, but I know that the Chinese people I knew over in Oatman, the cooks over there, they always managed to have good comfortable cot and mattress, with a curtain.
Lum: Yes, they had a curtain. There were no tunnels.
The basements of the time weren't used solely for storage. More famously, the Hotel Beale had the "Sump Bar" in its basement, which was frequently visited by none other than Andy Devine himself.
But tunnels? My memory says yes, they were there, but the voices of the past said otherwise. This urban legend, however, is close enough to the firsthand accounts of Lum and others to have some plausibility to it.
If you have any information on underground downtown Kingman, feel free to contact me at the Miner at email@example.com or share it with the museum or the Visitor's Center. I know that I'd be interested in knowing more about what lies under those streets, and sometimes unearthing the past requires a little bit of crowdsourcing.