Fellow Book Benders
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    This is the 31st edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond.  This month we visit the secret tunnels of San Francisco.  Enjoy! For more info on my novels or to purchase one, visit
         November, 2018                                     Vol. 3, No. 11
Secret Tunnels of San Francisco
      A secret tunnel runs under the former San Francisco law office of Melvin Belli (1907-1996), the “King of Torts”, whose clients' list included Errol Flynn, Muhammad Ali, The Rolling Stones, Mae West, Jack Ruby and others.  The structure at 722 Montgomery Street (far left photo) was built circa 1850. Belli claimed that it was a Gold Rush era brothel, later to become the Melodeon Theater where Lotta Crabtree (near left photo) sung her lungs out.
      While conducting a field study on behalf of St. Mary’s College in the 1970’s, my students and I were invited inside. We stepped under crystal chandeliers, past red velvet drapes and a statue of a Swiss Madonna, wearing an ostrich plume from South Africa. A discreet staircase came into view, exposing the entrance to the passageway. It once led under an adjoining alley to a horse stable, allowing a quick getaway for Miss Crabtree.  Belli married six times with five divorces, declaring bankruptcy toward the end. I often wondered if he ever used the tunnel for his own personal escapes.        
Shirley Hilbert says, "My Uncle Henry was a Yellow cab driver for many years and picked up Mr. Belli every morning. According to my Uncle, Mr. Belli was a very unusual man."

   On March 28, 1891 readers of the Chronicle were greeted with astonishing news: Coal Discovered in the City! “An old miner has found a vein hugging the coastline."
        Adolph Sutro owned the land, which was north of the Sutro Baths (near right photo) close to Deadman's Point and present-day Fort Miley.  Sutro put a crew to work, and the old miner's discovery was confirmed.  There was indeed coal there, but the mine was never fully developed despite the city’s reliance on coal in the late 19th century. No one knows why. Today the story of San Francisco’s coal mine is largely forgotten. The tunnel is still there (far right photo) although in decaying condition.
       Sidebar: Ray Shanahan
recalls, "Some of the tunnels weren't accessible, unless you were trespassing. We would follow the chain-link fence around Fort Miley until we could get to the sloped area, which fell to the Bay. We had a few barbecues until we would get caught."
   Many believe the catacombs under Chinatown stretched throughout the sixteen-block enclave and into North Beach. The leaders of the tongs guarded the whereabouts of entrances to these passageways with their lives. The underpasses hid thriving opium dens (upper far left photo), torture and execution chambers as well as escape routes.
         The tong wars were rekindled as gang battles in the 1970s. Extortion is still rampant. If you ever spot a red piece of paper attached to a storefront window, it is a signal that the shop owner has paid his/her "protection money" for the month. Joe Boys, Wah Ching, and Worms were split apart and sent to different schools after the attempted assassination of the principal at Galileo  in the seventies.  I personally worked with a Joe Boys gang member who drove the getaway car and turned state’s evidence in the Golden Dragon Restaurant shooting in 1977. It was part of his probation—performing community service work as my consultant while a handful of us dealt with the new influx of Asian gangs at Mission High School.   
           Also, there is a Muni subway (lower far left photo), which is nearing completion, that will connect Moscone Center with Chinatown.      
Mitsy Moreno remembers her mom saying that she would freak out when she went to the city as a kid, that "she believed there were opium dens under Chinatown, & bad men would steal white girls.
          Greg Lynn: "My Dad told me about how he stumbled into tong tunnels when dealing with a building decades ago."

Secret tunnels in Chinatown also included the one at 920 Sacramento Street (near right photo).  A Protestant missionary by the name of Donaldina Cameron (upper far right photo) extricated upwards of three thousand girls from serfdom. They were known as mui tsai and sold into prostitution or domestic work by the tongs who ran the brothels. Bold beyond description, Miss Cameron would chase down leads to free the women. On one occasion, she shared a girl’s cell in order to engineer her escape.
          When tong owners came with search warrants to the brick building on Sacramento, the girls would scurry down to the basement where they would escape through a secret tunnel that led to nearby sewers (lower far right photo).  Donaldina Cameron died in 1968.
          When America went dry during Prohibition, San Francisco simply went underground. The House of Shields (far left photo) was established in 1908 and is located at 39 New Montgomery St.  In the twenties, a tunnel was built to connect the speakeasy with the laundry room of the Palace Hotel, which was across the street.
             Some say that the tunnel was used long after Prohibition ended to arrange trysts for the posh clientele at the Palace. Though the official story is that President Harding died on August 2, 1923 of a heart attack at the ritzy hostelry, others will whisper confidently that he passed away in the presence of a woman at the House of Shields who was not his wife.
Another example of a secret tunnel beneath a San Francisco speakeasy is at the present site of a Bourbon and Branch saloon at 501 Jones St. near O’Farrell. Look for the Anti-Saloon League sign out front (upper right photo). Between 1923-1935 the nondescript building housed the J.J. Russell Cigar Shop, but an aromatic havana was not their main product. One would knock on the main door and provide a password. Once inside, if you requested a particular cigar, an employee would lead the way through a trap door (photo bottom far right) to the basement where a bartender would serve the finest bootleg contraband shipped from Vancouver.
          There was a brass bell, which was connected to a lever behind the counter upstairs. If this sounded, a warning would be sent throughout the speakeasy as patrons rushed through various tunnels. The Ladies Exit, for example, granted safe passage to Leavenworth Street, a full block away.
          Today the saloon capitalizes on its notorious reputation, making available the original five rooms used during Prohibition. Each has a secret entrance such as the Wilson & Wilson Room via a faux bookshelf (photo bottom near right).  Have a stiff one in the same space where perhaps a distant relative once imbibed.   Cheers!
            Sidebar: Charlene Ozawa believes that you can still use the Ladies Exit today.  Strictly for fun.

    At Land’s End, usually frequented only by raccoons, is a forgotten tunnel under the Cliff House (far left photo) in San Francisco.  Accessing the tunnel (near left photo) is no picnic.  Technical climbing and careful attention to tides is required.
          Sidebars: Nicky Huey says, "We used to hang out inside there when I was in high school. A little scary to get to."
          Ron Ravetti recalls, "That would be 'hole in the rock'. Used to have get-togethers down there. Fun times."

         A secret World War Two tunnel supposedly runs somewhere north of Civic Center in San Francisco. Built in the early 1900s, this passage used to transport soldiers and materials.  Behind a pair of twenty-foot gates, there is a huge metal door.  Thrill seekers tell of their adventures deep inside this maze.  Doubters insist the photo on the near right simply appears to be a sewer, others testify that this urban legend is true.  If you are of the latter persuasion, keep in mind that inside there is a nuke-esque sign that reads “Fallout Shelter”, and best believe I’ll be there if Mr. Trump leans too hard on "the button".
        A second W.W.II underground bunker in the City was featured on The History Channel in 2009.  The series, Cities of the Underworld, told of classified military headquarters beneath San Francisco.   A fifteen-foot-long tunnel led to the edge of a hundred-foot man-made cement cliff. A metal ladder, pounded into the concrete wall, took one downward to a military complex.  Hidden far below the city’s surface were a series of ballroom-size caverns, tunnels and smaller rooms (far right photo) that once existed in a long-forgotten era. The History Channel show initiated a flood of curiosity seekers.  The authorities eventually discovered the hidden entrance and shut it down not too long after it aired.
D.J. Chip says, "Crawling into the hidden bunker didn't look hard at first.  But then I skidded to the end of the skinny entrance and smacked to a stop right at the edge of a 100-foot cliff."
Alex Orzulak remembers another tunnel that ran from Hunters Point to the liberty ship piers.

NEXT TIME we will visit Duncans Mills along the Russian River. Take care and stay out of trouble (if only I could remember how).  Cheers!
Reviews for Don't Stop the Music:
        “For those who remember the era (Summer of Love), Don't Stop the Music is a delicious summary of memory.”
         San Francisco Museum and Historical Society
        "John McCarty has put together a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love (1967) that is cheerful and entertaining and even pays tribute to the beauty of west Sonoma County..."
          Sonoma County Historical Society

          “A trip back in time to the 1960’s San Francisco Fillmore District, up through the Marin & Sonoma coastline to the Russian River hippie heyday and the peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.  A nostalgic read.”
            Russian River Historical Society

            "Somehow McCarty manages to build sympathy for his motley crew as they embark on a classic road trip from San Francisco to rural northern California."
            Northern California Fulbright Association

         "Familiar folks, home-grown scenery, and candid attitudes will put you happily in the middle of all the action."
            Stephen Gross, The Press Democrat

           "All along there is danger, excitement, budding love and a number of unrighteous brawls.  The author knows what he writes about.”

            Bob Jones, Sonoma West Times & News

Attributions & Asides:
       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of  North Beach.   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Shirley Hilbert, Ray Shanahan, Mitsy Moreno, Greg Lynn, Patricia Cotton,Charlene Ozawa,Nicky Huey, Ron Ravetti, D.J. Chip, Alex Orzulak, Robin Monroe (website designer), The Press Democrat, Card Cow Vintage Postcards, Sonoma County Historical Society, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
                To subscribe a friend to this newsletter go to and scroll to the bottom of any page to "Subscribe To Our Newsletter".
                 Your privacy is important to me.  Be assured that I am not sharing your email or any other personal information. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."   JMc
Copyright © 2018 John McCarty, All rights reserved.

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