Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reporter Reflections: Mining stories from the depths of city's history

Tunnels story sparks enthusiastic response

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Sometimes it's not what you write, but how people react to it that gives you pause to think.

More often, it's been the people I've interviewed and what's happened to them -- usually something bad -- that's compelled me to reflect on things: A family dealing with the slaying of a loved one, the horrific abuse of a child or someone sentenced to life in prison for a crime they did not commit.

This past year was different. The story idea came from a place I did not expect and it kindled a response from readers I did not anticipate.

Last May, I got an email from former Crown prosecutor Bruce MacFarlane, a law professor at the University of Manitoba:

"Bruce, have you ever gone through the underground tunnel system that links the ledge (Manitoba Legislative Building) with several other buildings in the area? Fascinating grid that is largely unknown to Manitobans. It was constructed shortly after completion of the ledge, and legend has it that it was to provide an escape network for ministers in the post-1919 (Winnipeg General Strike) riot era. A good story if you can get in... "

What the heck, I thought. I'll see if I can get in.

With the summer coming, and its typically slow news cycle, I needed a project to fill my extra time and still produce something for the paper.

So I started researching the ledge's underground tunnel, first on the web and then the Winnipeg Free Press archives.

I also asked Todd Miclash, the legislature's building manager, about seeing the tunnel, which runs from the northeast corner of the building under Broadway to a power plant behind the Law Courts near York Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.

It took a while to get permission, but we finally walked its length mid-summer. At the same time I had researched other tunnels, some real and others the stuff of urban legend.

I wasn't ready for the response when the story ran. What I thought would be an one-off feature story about a little-known tunnel, with a bit of Winnipeg's history thrown in, turned into an almost full-time beat.

The response was tremendous. I got about 100 emails, phone calls and letters (and Facebook and Twitter comments, too) from readers telling me about other tunnels in the city, or asking me for more information about the tunnel at the legislative building. To put that in perspective, it's a rare day when anyone takes the time to make an earnest comment about something I've done.

The web response to Free Press multimedia editor Tyler Walsh's video about the tunnel was also beyond what we expected. It was one of the top-watched videos on our website this year.

Because of the interest, we did two more tunnel stories for the paper and website. It felt like I spent more time exploring dank basements of old buildings downtown and in the archives flipping through old maps and photos than in the office.

What surprised me most about the response and readers' comments is that they came from everywhere.

Young people. Old people. Men. Women. Students. Retirees. People inside the Perimeter and people outside. You name it. And I'm still getting comments.

This reaction told me two things: First, folks like tunnels. I'm not sure why, other than they're cool and part of the underground lore of Winnipeg. Second and more important, Manitobans like learning about the history of Winnipeg and the province; what it used to look like, its streets and buildings that exist now only in old black-and-white photos or maps from another century.

Then there are the stories of the people who lived and thrived here, building a city to be the gateway to the west and to compete against Chicago, to turn a fur-trading outpost at the junction of two rivers into a thriving and competitive city.

Our history as a city is relatively short -- just 200 years, not that much in the scheme of things.

Still, we've crammed a lot into those 200 years. We live in a place with a rich and colourful past. MacFarlane's email set me on a little adventure that allowed me to take readers on a tour of its underground places and pass on our history in a different way.

That experience taught me there's no shortage of stories to tell.

The challenge for me now is how I can tell them. I've got a couple of things percolating. One involves historic plane crashes.

So if Tyler and I show up next summer in your yard with a shovel, now you know why.

If you have any other ideas, you know where to find me.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 B4

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