Moose Jaw’s Secret Underground World

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Undergound Telephone in Moose Jaw Tunnel

Underground Telephone in Moose Jaw Tunnel
Photographer: Donald Telfer
Writer: Donald Telfer

The boy tore across the street, flew down a flight a stairs, rapped on a door and shouted the alarm: “Storm tonight!”

Spreading faster than a prairie fire, “storm tonight” was the warning that the monthly raid was imminent, an alert to hide the cards, ditch the liquor and round up the women from the red-light district on River Street.

Just 11 years old in 1921, the enterprising Laurence “Moon” Mullins had established a newspaper stand next to Woolworth’s at the corner of Main and River streets. The police chief, Walter P. Johnson, would ride up on his horse, and as Mullins stroked his muzzle, the chief would lean over in the saddle and whisper that there would be a storm that night.

“Johnson was a crook,” Mullins said, “but he was a nice man to us.” Johnson ran Moose Jaw as his pocket fiefdom from 1905 through 1927. While he kept the town free of major crime, he amassed the spoils of fees from con artists, recycled confiscated bootleg liquor, and collaborated with an underground opium and gambling outfit. The playground for Regina playboys and passengers killing time between trains, Moose Jaw, 45 minutes from Saskatchewan’s Capital City Regina, became a hideout for American gangsters on the run and a headquarters for distilling, bootlegging and rum-running rings to the U.S.

Al “Scarface” Capone was a regular visitor to Moose Jaw during the Roaring Twenties. When the heat was too hot in Chicago, he found safety at the end of the rail line in “Little Chicago.” Today, Capone, his sidekick Diamond Jim Brady and the notoriety of Moose Jaw’s past are recreated by the cast of “Tunnels of Moose Jaw” tours, in which the actors dramatize the Roaring Twenties in the underground network of vaults, murky cellars and hidden doors.

Built in the early 20th century, at a time when all buildings in central Moose Jaw were heated by steam controlled by underground boilers, the tunnels are comprised of interconnecting basements that originated at the Canadian Pacific railway station and branched out to the power plant, hotels and restaurants. The tunnels were dug by Chinese immigrants to allow steam engineers easier access to boilers on cold winter nights.

Street Mural - Moose Jaw

Near the entrance to the tunnels is a giant mural called Towns Afire! One of dozens of colourful murals scattered throughout the city, it depicts the tragic years in the 1890s when much of downtown Moose Jaw was razed by fire. After the city decreed that public buildings be made of brick, stone or concrete, many fine landmarks were constructed, including the grand beaux arts-style City Hall, built originally as a post office.

temple gardens mineral poolTemple Gardens Mineral Pool
Source: Temple Gardens Mineral Spa

The pride of Moose Jaw now is Temple Gardens Mineral Spa. Sitting atop mineral-rich water drawn from ancient seabeds, Temple Gardens is a short walk from the spot where a part of Main Street collapsed in the 1970s, revealing the existence of the long-denied tunnels.

“I always said that a truck would break through,” Mullins said, laughing, “and it did!”

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