Chasing down the legend of Vernon's underground tunnels - InfoNews

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Chasing down the legend of Vernon's underground tunnels

Underneath the Vernon Towne Cinema.
May 11, 2020 - 7:00 AM

At least once a month someone will ask Gerry Sellars about the tunnels which allegedly run under the streets of downtown Vernon.

And often before he can answer, they'll tell stories of prohibition-era bootleggers evading the law and running liquor through secret underground tunnels which connect buildings dotted along 30 Avenue. The stories of the tunnels tend to have an underworld tone, alcohol and prohibition are prominent, but sometimes gambling and even prostitution.

The Vernon Towne Cinema appears to be the epicentre of the labyrinth of tunnels and as the owner of the movie theatre for the last 20 years, Sellars has heard a lot of stories.

"I've been told by customers there was a time when these tunnels went the entire length of the street," Sellars said.

Rumours of long-forgotten tunnels linking businesses along Vernon's main street go back decades and many people along the street will repeat those stories.

Nearly 20 years ago, when Gabriel Newman was conducting research in preparation for launching his downtown ghosts tours, he came across talk of the tunnels.

"I heard it all the time," Newman said. "(It) came up that there were tunnels going from the courthouse to the penitentiary, tunnels going under all of downtown."

It's not hard to see why rumours of tunnels exist. Vernon Towne Cinema.
It's not hard to see why rumours of tunnels exist. Vernon Towne Cinema.

Two blocks west of the historic Vernon Towne Cinema, Record City owner Kelvin Forgo says he's heard plenty of stories about underground tunnels over the years although he's never seen them.

"Come to think of it, I don't know if I've ever met anyone who has actually seen them," Forgo says.

Tunnels running under the cities of Moose Jaw and Seattle have become regular tourist attractions, and it's not inconceivable that tunnels, or the remains of tunnels, may run under the streets of Vernon.

And while it's not inconceivable, it's also just not true.

"The sad reality is when you look at how the town filled up there’s no real plan. There would be one building, and then there wouldn't be anything for a block and then there would be two buildings," Newman said. "The amount of infrastructure and planning that would have been required to build a tunnel network, you wouldn't have been able to do it without everybody knowing it."

Newman said he was very disappointed to find out the tunnels didn't exist.

The epicentre of the tunnels?
The epicentre of the tunnels?

A trip to the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives confirms the non-existence of the much talked about tunnels. Staff say every few years someone will come in saying they want to do research on the tunnels under Vernon — just like we did. They all leave disappointed when they are told no such tunnels exist.

So why, if the tunnels don't exist, do so many people believe they do?

A trip to the sprawling basement below the Towne Cinema sheds light on where the myth came from.

Heading down into the dark basement through tunnel-sized rooms and past numerous boarded-up doorways is a set of two wooden doors.

The doors, however, don't lead to a bootleggers tunnel, but once linked the basement of what was the National Ballroom to the then-National Hotel several doors down.

"In inclement weather, they could have hotel guests... come from the hotel underground and not get their feet muddy," Sellars says.

Sellars said the building was built 1929 and 1930 as the National Ballroom.  The tunnels were actually a passageway through the basement to the National Hotel, which is the current site of Monashees Wine, Spirits & Beer. The passageway from the ballroom to the hotel would have allowed performers to leave their hotel room and enter backstage without being seen by the public.

Sellars said the National Ballroom didn't last long and by the mid-1930s, with the golden age of cinema in full swing, the building was converted into a cinema. Over time the passageway was blocked up.

Concreted over. The basement at the Italian Kitchen.
Concreted over. The basement at the Italian Kitchen.

Next door at the Italian Kitchen, restaurant owner Katie Bellamy says she gets lots of questions.

"People always ask about the basement, the ghost, the tunnels, people are just curious they just want to know what's down there," she said. "People have heard there are tunnels under Vernon and they want to see if it's true."

Down in the basement of the restaurant, the remnants of the passageway concreted up are far less impressive than the rumours.

Nothing remains at the old site of the National Hotel. Monashees wine director, Jackie Dreger, says the new building doesn't even have a basement.

Newman describes the story of the tunnels as similar to a conspiracy theory.

"We love conspiracy stories, that there's something that's going on that's bigger and more interesting than the world around us," he said. "It's the unknown and that there's a larger world out there behind the veil."

Italian Kitchen owner Katie Bellamy says she's often asked about the tunnels.
Italian Kitchen owner Katie Bellamy says she's often asked about the tunnels.

Down in the basement of the Towne Cinema among old film reels and abandoned rows of cinema seats, the maze of rooms and numerous boarded-up doorways makes it easy to believe that tunnels may have once skirted beneath the streets of Vernon.

Sellars says he hears plenty of outlandish stories of tunnels and prohibition but he doesn't jump to correct people's imaginations.

"You don't want to dispel people's dreams or their memories," he said. "We're all guilty of that to a degree, we may take small instances that happen to us, and over the retelling, they get bigger and bigger."

He points to an old rotary telephone in the foyer of the cinema. He often hears grandparents tell their grandkids they remember calling their parents on that phone when they were kids.

Sellars only had the old phone installed in 2000.

Gerry Sellars in the projection room at the Towne Cinema.
Gerry Sellars in the projection room at the Towne Cinema.

More tunnel-like features in the cinema basement.
More tunnel-like features in the cinema basement.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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