Tunnel tourism: the next big thing for Victoria?

19 Feb

Victoria’s entrepreneurial management of its historical assets lies at the heart of the city’s success as a tourist destination. We do a lot with a little.

Tourists tend to move from the Inner Harbour down Government St. to Chinatown, then back. Small strip, but there’s a ton of history packed into those 6 or 7 blocks.

Of course that’s only the history you can see. There’s a whole different level of intrigue going on below the surface. Literally.

The Tunnels.

Tunnel tours

Whether coal chutes from the harbour up through Market Square, escape routes for opium users in Chinatown, or discreet connections between the Empress Hotel and the Union Club, everyone’s heard a story about the tunnels – and there is plenty of fanatical interest. Yet no one really knows the entire network for certain and the City sure isn’t telling.

I was personally introduced to one by the owner of the Pacific Design Academy on Wharf Street who stumbled upon it in his basement while doing renos.

Imagine the financial potential of upgrading those tunnels and creating under-city guided tours: Victoria’ amazing history told through the city’s original town planning.

People love tunnels. Think of the success of the Catacombs in Paris, or the Cu Chi tunnel systems in Vietnam. When managed well, tunnel tourism can be huge business. Seattle has been exploiting its own tunnel history since 1965 thanks to the efforts of legendary historian and promoter Bill Speidel. So the model is already there.

Victory’s history could be even more sensationally brought to life via an Augmented Reality app that you use when you’re on the tour.

Tunnel tourism would make a heck of a viability study for the Entrepreneurial majors in U Vic’s Gustavson School of Business, don’t you think?

Tunnel tours


16 Responses to “Tunnel tourism: the next big thing for Victoria?”

  1. Jen February 19, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    I was reading about some interesting tunnels in the the “Unknown City” book by Ross Crockford (including one collapsed one they discovered while razing the old Union Club location that went the road to… the brothel across the street, perhaps?)

    His blog has some good info about other tunnel-related projects in Victoria… although nothing about tourism!

  2. Doug Brown February 19, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    That’s a great link Jen, appreciated. I have been through dozens of threads the past few days while I thought out this post. I am a tunnel-nut just like a lot of the people on those threads. But the only way to make the tunnels safe for explorations by moles like us is to re-enforce them. That takes time, money…and a business plan. Many tunnel-moles don’t want to see them exposed and prefer the mystery. There are many underground groups doing clandestine forays. But obviously not something encouraged by the City, or engineers. Thanks for that comment!

  3. kinematicdigit February 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    Hey thanks for the mention of the Pacific Design Academy.

    I used to be an urban spelunker in Calgary and loved discovering hidden service tunnels and underground access points. I for my part have had the opportunity to see several of the access points in Victoria and even gone down a hundred meters down some of them before facing a bricked up wall or gate. Of the places that I have seen them are in various buildings around town. Some of them are sealed up further. In Chinatown the best access point is found in Fisgard Market. This tunnel was supposed to be sealed up after Morley’s the former store went through renovations for Fisgard Market. It went in pretty deep in there, but it was very precarious at best and certainly not a place I’d bring tourists through.

    Empress building, during the filming of a movie gave unrestricted access to the bowels of that hotel (I can’t recall which movie it was at the moment). Although technically not a tunnel, it was a great setting for some great dark and underground looking backdrops. I haven’t seen that place since the late 80’s and not certain how accessible it is now. They uncovered and reinforced it when they built the convention centre finding all sorts of interesting history in what was originally James Bay – I believe it was thought the tunnel was part of the old sewer system from modern day James Bay that lead directly to James Bay into the harbour.

    Under the Victoria Plaza Hotel (My first logo design I ever made in fact), in the basement you can see the old cobble stone street and a street lamp or two. Back in the days when Julie’s nightclub was above, there was an eerie timeless sense of things with the 90’s techno music playing above, and the clearly old Victorian style of Old Town that was down below. Access was between the nightclub and the restaurant and you can see remnants of sealed up access-ways there. Again, I had access to this in the 80’s and not sure if it is all renovated or sealed up now.

    Speaking of old town, even your old location clearly shows how Government was built up above the old street level by the bisection of the windows on the exterior of buildings. There’s evidence throughout town of these examples. Hard to say how many basements (which for many were first levels back in the 1900s, have been relegated to just storage or have been converted into proper habitable spaces.

    I’ve personally never actually seen the access-ways at PDA, but have seen the evidence that takes it under store street via some service and access panels, however in the sub-basement, which was actually the orignal dockside entrance off the water before the Regent Hotel was built there is lots of evidence there that shows how Victoria was built upon the old city.

    Much of the tunnels that I’ve seen seem to be mostly access points to Old Town, however much of that got converted to sewer systems and service tunnels when the city modernized and grew.

    The great mystery’s below is such a fun piece of conversation when I’ve come across others who have seen them, but unfortunately most of them are buried under businesses and most if not all access points are pretty much sealed up long ago. I for one would love to be a part of a team to discover that stuff as it still appeals to the amateur archeologist in me (I will certainly be wearing a hat and carrying a whip just incase we ran into trouble 🙂

  4. Doug Brown February 19, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    That’s fantastic detail Terrance! I have heard many urban legends about different tunnels in different places and there is no denying the presence of an ardent and persistent network of tunnelers in Victoria. The threads make it clear how successful they have been. I read in one thread about the discovery of a street in the basement of a well-known Chinatown restaurant with a cobbled lane and shops…all closed up and hidden now. That sort of detail just makes people like me (and evidently you) froth at the mouth.

    Of course the City doesn’t want anyone taking risks down there and a lot of the tunnels are on private property. But even just opening a small section to the public would be huge!

    Thanks for the great comment.

  5. Terry Dee February 19, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    Cool post.

    If you have a week to read through a very interesting, bizarre and entertaining forum thread, I present you with:


    It’s been a year or so since I kept up with the reading, but Underground Victoria fascinated me after going through this. I think you have something here.

  6. Doug Brown February 19, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    Terry I spent about two hours yesterday going through all 171 pages of that threat. That’s where I read about some of the incredible things going on under Chinatown. Glad to see you are also fascinated by the subterranean city. If I learn something interesting, I will let you know.

  7. Terry Dee February 19, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

    Too funny. That thread was addicting. Albeit with some bizarre turns. Now I have a new info source to follow. 🙂

  8. Doug Brown February 19, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    Terry I will post any new tunnel details I come across in the comments section here. If you subscribe to the comments, you’ll get auto-notification of any new juicy finds. Please share any that you come across too!

  9. Felix February 19, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    I never have heard of the tunnels in Victoria and I grew up there! Fantastic post Doug.

    This reminds me of studying abroad in Krakow, Poland. The city has a grand history and the square is the main area of tourism, public performance and an area for commerce. Throughout time, buildings were being built on top of existing ground and there were chunks of places in square that were actually resting grounds for some people. Nobody knew about that until recently! The square in the last few years were strategically excavated and turned into an underground interactive museum showcasing the city’s long medieval history and culture. I was fortunate enough to be there when it finally opened. It was very cool to be subterranean and seeing different layers of sediments which once were roads.

    If Victoria would only do something interesting like that!

  10. Doug Brown February 19, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Felix, I’m not surprised to hear that an old European city like Krakow has an underworld. How fantastic that you were there to see it open! It’s pretty remarkable to think that a relatively young city like Victoria could offer such an attraction as well. I’m getting the sense that there would be plenty of local interest in it.

    I’ve always thought the tunnels behind Niagara Falls were pretty cool – carved out of solid rock – like the tunnels of Victoria no doubt are.

  11. vireviews February 20, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    How fascinating, these tunnels were used to transport criminals to the prison way back in the day weren’t they? Why aren’t city officials talking about them?

  12. Doug Brown February 20, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    There are more tasty rumours than there are facts about the Victoria tunnels. I gather the long-standing policy of the CIty has been to keep a lid on it. Amateur tunnelers seek the truth regardless!

  13. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    I love this blog and the possibilities within it.

  14. Doug Brown February 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    Thanks a lot Albert. I’ve already got a lead on a tunnel rumoured to start in the basement of the building I own a condo in!

  15. Kris R February 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    It’s funny, I used to always wonder about the tunnels, still do in fact… every time I walk over those purple glass insets around broad street. I remember participating in the Seattle underground tour and noticing the exact same thing, only this time… it was from the underside – we were encouraged to all scream at the top of our lungs to freak out the surface dwellers as they walked overhead… I appreciated that the humour and the history. If Victoria were to set in motion a plan to reinforce and open these tunnels up to the public, I would take that tour in a heartbeat! Thanks Doug for writing this post!

  16. Doug Brown February 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Good to hear from you Kris. Every old city has an underbelly…and even though the reality may not live up to the fantasy, I have to feel ours has a compelling story to tell. I want to go check out Seattle’s now. And Portland has one too I’ve learned – also under Chinatown!

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