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Downtown Missoula’s Secret Tunnel System

A class of archaeology students spent a semester attempting to unravel the mysteries that lie below the streets of downtown Missoula. What they found was quite compelling.

Photo by Caryn Foehringer
This ceiling has seen better days. Most of Missoula’s downtown underground tunnels have been closed off. Photo by Caryn Foehringer

“It was a class project for an archaeological survey class with Kelly Dixon. And then Historic Preservation Officer Phillip Maechling asked his to lock into it, see if we we would be able to get a couple of bits of information and facts that he could share with people when they would ask him,” Manning explained.

Nikki Manning, a recent University of Montana doctoral candidate, recently published a book entitled Historic Underground Missoula, which takes readers back in time to see what Missoula was like and see the possible reasons for the tunnels that remain.

As the class entered the underground city streets, students that were participating in the study uncovered a children’s theatre, a Cold War-era bomb shelter that was packed with “carbohydrate supplements” along with a stockade of “drinkable water”.

The underground pathways near the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street were said to be “sordid establishments such as brothels and opium dens.”

According to Manning’s book, the first Chinese began arriving in Missoula in the 1860s and as with the extension of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Bitterroot Valley, they started coming more frequently.

In 1875, the San Francisco Opium Den Ordinance was passed, which outlawed the usage of opium and more importantly, tried to decrease the interaction and sale of opium between Chinese and white Americans. We may ask ourselves: Is there a link?

Photo by Caryn Foehringer
According to Historic Underground Missoula, many of these tunnels were used as opium dens. Photo by Caryn Foehringer

“The Chinese connection was a question that we had in the beginning, but we haven’t really found anything to support the Chinese in Missoula even had a reason to run around underground to hide,” Manning said. “While it wasn’t the greatest for them anywhere in the West, Missoula doesn’t seem to have been that bad for them.”


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