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Are the tunnels from Moose Jaw’s notorious history real or not?

Ron Walter looks at the history of Moose Jaw's tunnels
Trading Thoughts with Ron Walter

While Googling for information on the history of a weird cult in British Columbia, Yours truly stumbled upon a site highlighting unique places to visit.

The site has over 16,000 such sites around the globe, piquing my interest to see if Saskatchewan had any such peculiar sites.

The search for Saskatchewan’s curious sites brought up a list of 17, leading with the Alticane crooked trees northwest of Saskatoon. 

Three are in Moose Jaw – Tunnels of Moose Jaw, Mac the Moose, and the Sukanen Ship Museum.

Holy Smokes: Moose Jaw has about three per cent of Saskatchewan population but is home to almost one-fifth of the most curious sites to visit.

Fifth on the list was the Tunnels of Moose Jaw but the information is somewhat twisted from local fact and folklore. 

The website says the tunnels were built around 1908 intending to run the city on steam heat. They were abandoned, later used by Chinese wanting to avoid the head tax and discrimination.

In the 1920s a new use was found. Rum runners stored bootleg alcohol in them and eventually built speakeasies serving booze and with illicit gambling.

Good story, but not much truth to it. 

In the debate on whether there really were tunnels, the naysayers claim the tunnels were actually coal chutes that also doubled as passages between buildings so one steam engineer could service numerous coal-fired boilers.

The stories about the Chinese tunnel inhabitants are legend, perhaps even romantic flim-flam. While there is no official record of Chinese tunnel inhabitants, just as there is no or official record of the tunnels, evidence suggests a grain of truth to the matter.

A startling discovery while rebuilding sewer lines on Main Street around 1969 was covered in a Times-Herald news story as a tunnel find, just east of the Cornerstone Inn. Those records notoriously disappeared. 

There is a bricked door in the Cornerstone basement, with speculation that it led across the street to the well-known Exchange Cafe.

I do recall an interview with the late Moon Mullins, who described an incident he saw when he lost count of the Chinese who were crawling out of  a “tunnel” back of the Exchange Cafe.   

A few years ago, the man who had the job of tearing down the Exchange Cafe in the 1960s told Yours truly he found small cubicles in the basement that could have been used for bedrooms.

He also discovered a basement tunnel big enough to stand up in, leading west across Main Street. It had caved in halfway across the street.

One recalls a young man in a River Street cafe in the 1930s, who saw a Chinese man inside, left while the man was inside only to see the same man outside.

He had no idea how he got out unless it was via a tunnel.

Moon Mullins, an awesome story teller who had a reputation for embellishing, told Yours truly in a 1980s interview that he was in the tunnels and he was in a hotel basement speakeasy when police raided it – unsuccessfully.

The operators had been tipped off, stashed the patrons, booze and gambling materials behind secret doors until the disappointed cops left.

About a week after that interview was published, someone approached Moon at a garage sale and told him his story was bunk. Another man at a garage sale said the story was true. He had been in the tunnels.

Two documented cases of Al “Scarface” Capone sightings exist. Both men did not recognize the Chicago gangster until much later when they saw Scarface’s photo in newspapers.

One was a barber who trekked through tunnels to give Scarface a haircut. The other was a doctor who recalled being escorted through half a mile of tunnels to lance a boil on this gruff and the generously tipping patient.

When the non-profit organization developed the first tunnel tour around 1995, the employee in charge kept a scribbler with names, phone numbers and sometimes addresses of visitors with personal or family stories of the “real tunnels.” Several pages were filled.

If you have a facts-only, seeing-is-believing personality, you won’t believe there were tunnels.

If you base your beliefs on circumstantial evidence, you will believe there were tunnels.

The website does a much better job describing Mac the Moose and Tom Sukanen.
Ron Walter can be reached at


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Moose Jaw Today, the Moose Jaw Express, its management, or its subsidiaries.

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