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Question: There are rumors of a network of tunnels underground in downtown Anchorage from the Prohibition era. Is this true? Are the tunnels still there? Related: I visited the old tiki bar underneath Trapper Jack’s on Fourth Avenue, now used as the store’s storage, and there appeared to be a tunnel leading away. A store employee suggested it was a shooting range and also told us that Wally Hickel Sr. was the bartender in his youth. Curious if either of those facts are true.
Here’s what we know: The remnants of a 1940s tiki bar where the former Alaska governor once made cocktails can, in fact, still be found in the basement level of a Fourth Avenue building, along with an apparent shooting range. And while historians say underground passageways downtown likely weren’t borne out of Prohibition-era bootlegging, a former fire marshal said she entered “creepy” tunnels below the street in the 1990s during fire inspections.
But first, the tiki bar. The South Seas Bar opened in the 1940s, and former Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel, who also served as U.S. Interior secretary, bartended and worked there as a bouncer, according to a municipal inventory of historic places.
Palm trees and rattan furniture dominated the underground establishment’s decor, evidenced in photos of the venue during its heyday. Today, only the dance floor — surrounded by concrete painted in a tropical pattern with flowers and leaves — remains.
The space now functions as a storeroom that’s part of Bill Dankworth’s souvenir shop, Trapper Jack’s Trading Post, on the corner of Fourth Avenue and G Street in downtown Anchorage. His store sits on more than just an old tiki bar — in another part of the basement, there’s an old shooting range, with a pulley system overhead to move targets back and forth as well as a 50-foot-deep horizontal cylinder to aim into.
We found other fascinating underground spaces downtown in the course of answering this question and reporting this story — for example, in the soon-to-be Bear Paw Restaurant building on the corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street. Two large, metal vault doors that date back to when a bank occupied the building are straight out of a heist film. All that’s missing is a safecracker spinning dials and listening for a telltale click.
One vault door is permanently propped open to reveal not safe-deposit boxes or mounds of cash but a former martini bar, once part of a less-than-authorized club under previous owners. The other bank vault is closed up for good with high voltage warnings since it now houses a municipality transformer, said Mike Pulcifer, CEO of E Street Dining, which is opening the downtown Bear Paw restaurant.
And now, the tunnel rumors.
Cleo Hill, a retired Anchorage fire marshal, said she entered tunnels beneath Fourth Avenue when she carried out fire inspections downtown sometime in the early ‘90s. Some of the businesses at the time were connected by doors and passageways underground, though most establishments had blocked the tunnels off to keep people from sneaking in, Hill said.
Descending below the businesses, Hill said she found old mattresses in sectioned-off rooms, including some that looked like jail cells, with bars. She described the space as both surprising and “creepy” — it was dark and smelled musty, and there was an electrical wire with a lightbulb strung up every 20 or so feet.
“Anybody we talked to — they hardly even knew the tunnels were down there,” Hill said.
Hill said inspectors never found anyone in the tunnels, but they tossed around ideas: Was someone being kept or trafficked down there? There were rooms to keep people in and mattresses to sleep on, “and then God knows what would happen to them after that,” she said.
“I had heard rumors that they were using those areas for nefarious things,” she said. “I myself never saw anything other than having the mattresses there. But, I mean, if you’re going to have mattresses laying out there, it seems like there’s a reason.”
When, where and how those tunnels originated remains unclear.
A network of tunnels used for bootlegging in Anchorage and prompted by the banning of alcohol during Prohibition is unlikely, according to local historian and Daily News history columnist David Reamer. While the city has a history of stills in basements and hidden underground chambers, tunnels don’t seem likely given how new the city was when liquor was banned in 1915.
With so little law enforcement in town at the time, constructing tunnels would have taken way too much work for too little gain, he said.
“It was far easier to simply land boats south of town and bring the goods in by foot, cart, or car,” Reamer wrote by email. “I’d be delighted by the discovery of bootlegging tunnels, but I’d need some concrete evidence before I’d acknowledge it as more than legend.”