Mystery Tunnels in Lethbridge
Written By Shawn Funk
For years, stories of a secret underground tunnel network that runs beneath the downtown core of Lethbridge has piqued the curiosity of many. Some say they are coal tunnels, some say they were used during the prohibition, and others deny their existence altogether.
Do these tunnels exist? What were they used for? Who built them?
The mystery behind these tunnels is often romanticized by tales of smuggling and underground liquor venues during the prohibition era that lasted between 1916 and 1923 in Alberta (Wiki, 2022), leading many to believe these tunnels were used by smugglers and bootleggers to hide and distribute their products.
I decided to go downtown and ask around. Were these tunnels really used for smuggling?
I have kept the names of the people and the businesses anonymous.
I met with a shopkeeper on 5th Street who told me that there was a “prohibition tunnel” beneath the store. I was intrigued by her choice of words. She said the tunnel dips as it crosses 5th Street and leads to another room. Could this room be the remnants of a speak-easy, an underground drinking hole used during prohibition? Maybe. Belinda Crowson, a local historian, indicates that alcohol sales and consumption in Lethbridge and area was an open secret; thus, many business owners had illegal side businesses that involved the sale and consumption of liquor (Crowson, 2011).
According to Galt Museum archives, bootlegging was rife in Southern Alberta along the U.S. border during the prohibition era (Chernevych, 2020). It is possible that some of these tunnels could have been built by bootleggers, but very little evidence exists for this (Crowson, 2011). Crowson implores us to use our judgment when entertaining stories about the tunnels, telling us not to “believe everything you hear whispered and reported” about them (Crowson, 2011). Even so, the fact that bootlegging was prevalent in the area is enough for many to conclude that some of these tunnels were built for smuggling during prohibition.
Rumour has it that some downtown businesses are connected by an underground tunnel. While some locals will tell you that these tunnels date back to the prohibition era, the truth is that many of them were built long before prohibition.
Galt Museum articles indicate that 3200kms of tunnels exist underneath Lethbridge and area (Crowson, 2011). They were built to transport coal. Between 1874 and 1965, 100 mines operated in and around Lethbridge (Ruttan, 2018). Therefore, many of these “secret” tunnels are but remnants of the coal rush that enveloped Lethbridge and area for more than 90 years.
According to the owners of another downtown business, many of the buildings on 5th Street used to be hotels. Each hotel would have a coal shoot connected to a main underground tunnel for deliveries. When they moved into their building 28 years ago, these tunnels were still accessible from their basement. However, continuing construction and renovations downtown have blocked all access points.
A man in the area said that guided tours through the tunnels were frequent decades ago, but the structural integrity of the tunnels forced the closure of these tours. While most of these tunnels have long been cemented off and built over, some of them still exist in a dilapidated condition, and are therefore very dangerous because of the risk of collapse.
Okay, so the romantic story that your old man told you about the rum runners, the tommy guns, and the souped-up Chryslers is super cool, and there might be some truth to it, but there is another story here that is just as interesting. That is the history of coal in Lethbridge.
Crowson, Belinda. Tunnel stories are mostly a myth. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2022, from https://www.galtmuseum.com/articles/2011/08/tunnel-stories-are-mostly-myth.html
Chernevych, Andrew. 100 years ago: hazards of the bootlegging business Retrieved Aug. 19, 2022, from https://www.galtmuseum.com/articles/100-years-ago-hazards-of-the-bootlegging-business
Ruttan, Graham. Coal mining’s boom and bust. Retrieved Aug. 17, 2022, from https://www.galtmuseum.com/articles/2018/10/15/coal-minings-boom-and-bust
Prohibition in Canada. Wikipedia. Retrieved Aug. 18, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_Canada#Alberta