Winnipeg is already well-known for its underground public places, such as Winnipeg Square and the tunnel that connects the Public Safety Building and civic parkade on Princess Street to the Centennial Concert Hall and Manitoba Museum on the other side of Main Street.

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This article was published 10/8/2012 (3360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Albert Street in the Exchange District.

Albert Street in the Exchange District.

Winnipeg is already well-known for its underground public places, such as Winnipeg Square and the tunnel that connects the Public Safety Building and civic parkade on Princess Street to the Centennial Concert Hall and Manitoba Museum on the other side of Main Street.

But there's at least one other subterranean network far from the public eye that connects many of downtown Winnipeg's buildings, such as the Manitoba Legislative Building on Broadway to the Norquay Building a block away on York Avenue.

Then there are the tunnels in the Exchange District that once linked a number of warehouses when the area bustled with trade goods supplied by the railways. All but one has long since closed -- it's a beer chute now.

Then there's the supposed tunnel that once connected the Fort Garry Hotel to the Manitoba Club next door on Broadway and Union Station on the other side of Main Street. It was supposedly sealed years ago, but some say if you listen closely, and tune out the busy traffic at Broadway and Main, you can still hear the muffled screams of a dying prostitute.

Or so the urban myth says.

In fact, much of what's supposedly known about these tunnels is based more on myth than the practical reasons they were dug so many years ago.


The legislative district tunnel network

The Free Press recently linked up with Manitoba Finance Minister Stan Struthers to tour the one tunnel system that's still in use.

Why Struthers?

Because one myth says the tunnel from the Legislative Building was built so people like him could escape should a mob storm the building with torches and pitchforks.

Provincial politicians did have reason to be afraid. During the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, a mob set fire to a streetcar on Main Street outside city hall. The North West Mounted Police rode into the crowd with baseball bats and firearms. Two strikers were killed and 27 others were injured.

The builders of the Legislative Building are said to have installed a secret spiral staircase leading down from a main floor corner office to the basement so that, should the building be besieged, politicians like Struthers could quickly slip away through the tunnel under Broadway and safely pop up a block away in the Vaughn Street Detention Centre on York Avenue.

The spiral staircase and the tunnel network are real, but the tunnel has more to do with keeping the inside of the legislative building warm in the winter and powering its five elevators. And the steel and brass staircase was installed so provincial workers looking after Manitoba's finances could move more freely between the first floor and the basement, where two large vaults are located. The main vault was last used to safeguard an original copy of the Magna Carta when it was here in 2010.

Legislative Building architect Frank Simon mentioned the tunnel in a July 17, 1920 newspaper article on how water, power, light and heat were supplied to the building.

Local historian Randy Rostecki says a network of tunnels was dug over several years to supply steam heat not only to the legislative building, but also the old law courts building and Vaughn Street detention centre. The network was extended to the Winnipeg Auditorium (now the provincial archives) in 1931-32 and, years later, to the Norquay Building at York Avenue and Kennedy Street (1959), the nearby Woodsworth Building (1973) and the Winnipeg Remand Centre (1992).

The link to all of these tunnels is the central powerhouse between the Law Courts and Memorial Park. It supplied heat to the expanded Vaughn Street jail (first built in 1881), the old Law Courts (1916) and the old Land Titles Building (1904), which is now the offices for Manitoba Court of Appeal and Queen's Bench judges.

Minister of Finance Stan Struthers leads reporter Bruce Owen on a tour through the tunnels of the Manitoba Legislative Building.


Minister of Finance Stan Struthers leads reporter Bruce Owen on a tour through the tunnels of the Manitoba Legislative Building.

The steam pipe tunnel network was extended under Broadway to the legislative building before it was formerly opened July 15, 1920. It cost $56,378.52 to build, according to government records.

Rostecki, who's writing a book called Lost Winnipeg (on 100 buildings no longer standing in the city), said provincial planners at the time envisioned a campus of government buildings supplied by a central heating facility. The Central Power House opened in 1915 and operates to this day.

"The concept of a legislative area evolved," he said, adding he walked the tunnel from the Norquay Building to the Legislative Building when he was a civil servant in the 1970s.

"The door was open and we thought, 'Hey, let's go in there,'" he says. "No one was around. No one challenged us."

The concrete and steel-reinforced tunnel is still used every day, but it's under lock and key. Snaking along beside its pipes is an old pneumatic air mail tube. It's how documents moved between the Norquay and Legislative Building before the fax machine.

"It's where the saying, 'Oh, your cheque must be stuck in the tube,' came from," Struthers says.


The Exchange District tunnels

These aren't so much tunnels as hollowed out spaces beneath the sidewalks. They were built to add additional space for area warehouses and, when warehouses were close to one another, to move goods back and forth without going outside.

The location of these tunnels was easy to spot. Thick glass squares were secured in a metal frame and embedded in the concrete sidewalk to supply natural light to the workspaces below.

"This was in the age before incandescent light," Rostecki says, adding many of these glass blocks turned purple because they contained magnesium.

These glass blocks are less and less common. Many were removed when sidewalks were replaced or they were cemented over.

The only working tunnel in the Exchange District is outside the Woodbine Hotel on Main Street. It's used for beer deliveries.

Urban legend holds that there used to be a tunnel under William Avenue from the old city hall (it was demolished in 1962 to make way for construction of the present civic centre) to the Leland Hotel. City councillors, it is said, used the tunnel to cavort with their mistresses at the Leland over the lunch hour.

But Rostecki says no tunnel ever existed. It wouldn't have survived even if it were built. That's because the of vestiges of Brown's Creek, which long ago crossed Main Street near William Avenue, would have made it too unstable. The Leland Hotel burned down in January 1999.

One story about the Exchange's tunnels that may have some truth behind it is that some were used by bootleggers to smuggle booze to thirsty customers during Prohibition. The ban on liquor sales was enacted by the province in 1916 and repealed seven years later.

Union Station-Manitoba Club-Fort Garry Hotel tunnel

Without a doubt, this is the most storied tunnel in the city. But did it really exist?

"I've been looking for it for 16 years and still haven't found it," says a security guard at the VIA Rail Union Station on Main Street. "But there are so many nooks and crannies downstairs, you never know.

"I tell you, if there were a tunnel, I'd be sitting in the Fort Garry Hotel having coffee right now."

What we know about the tunnel is based more on myth and Internet chat room postings than fact.

The myth goes that it was built before the hotel opened its doors in 1913 to deliver heat from a railway steam plant behind Union Station. It was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the forerunner of the Canadian National Railway. That steam plant is now home to CityTV.

The tunnel supposedly ran from the plant through the train station (built in 1911) under Main Street past the Manitoba Club (built in 1905) to the hotel.

The tunnel may have also been used to cart dirty laundry from the trains for washing at the hotel. There was also access to the tunnel via the Manitoba Club.

"It's now sealed," Manitoba Club general manager Graham Davis said. "It was sealed before my time."

Doug Bell, president of the Winnipeg Railway Museum at Union Station, said he remembers years ago peering into the tunnel at the Fort Garry Hotel end to see a stairwell full of water.

"It's a story I definitely heard many times," he added.

Some say the tunnel had other purposes. They say passengers and their luggage arriving at the station could take an electric car through the tunnel under Broadway to the hotel. It also supposedly had a barber shop, restaurant and tailor.

One myth is that it was also used to sneak prostitutes into the Manitoba Club, but Rostecki and Davis say that's a stretch.

A variation of that myth is that decades ago a prostitute was murdered in the tunnel, and that she haunts it today.

Rostecki says there was no tunnel other than the pipe needed to deliver steam heat to the hotel. And that pipe was shut off decades ago before the railway pulled out of what we now call The Forks and new sources of heating were installed.

"It was just a tunnel with a pipe in it," Rostecki says. "That's it."

Union Station manager Raphael Leung agrees.

"The tunnel is a myth," he says. "It's a steam trench. It may be two to three feet underground. There's no way people could crawl in there. It collapsed more than 25 years ago."

That steam trench ran in a straight line from the power plant, through the cobblestone underpass next to the North West Company building, under Main Street and behind the Manitoba Club (hugging what's now Upper Fort Garry Heritage Park) to the hotel.

"I have heard that the tunnel was more substantial, but we have no evidence of that," says Ida Albo, the hotel's managing partner.