The Mystery Continues…
The moment I learned I would be writing an article on the mysterious tunnels of Benicia, my mind wandered to exciting imaginary scenes. With my helmet and flashlight, I would explore the forbidden underpasses nearly every Benician has heard of, but never seen. I would learn the indisputable historical facts of their origins and finally crack the tall tales I’ve heard for nearly my entire life. Maybe, just maybe, I would get to carefully touch classified historical documents detailing the true purpose of these tunnels.
Well…that didn’t happen. After researching and contacting different Benicia entities, nearly every sentence started the same way: “Well, I heard….” followed by some speculation.
While the tunnels’ history continues to be disputed, four things are for certain: they currently exist in the most historical parts of our town, they have been around for at least one hundred years, most of the access points have been blocked off, and no one knows exactly why they’re here. However, the rumor mill has generated some excellent (and who knows, maybe they’re all true) explanations:
Prohibition Era Booze Routes
The 18th Amendment constitutionally banned alcohol production, transportation, and sale from 1920 to 1933. While it technically wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol, the laws in place made it exceedingly difficult to do so. Unsurprisingly, people still made and sold alcohol. Prohibition stirred creativity for cocktail loving rebels, adorning our nation’s history with speakeasies and bootlegging. Benicia was no exception to these once-criminal activities. According to some sources, it was considered the “wettest” Prohibition era city in Northern California. Many speculate that Benicia’s fervent participation in Prohibition rule breaking was facilitated by its hidden downtown tunnels. Protected from the gaze of onlookers, the tunnels could provide excellent cover for illicit activity. Bootleggers were able to transport their goods through the hidden tunnels and easily access speakeasies without ever coming through a visible entrance.
Downtown Brothel Access
Alcohol wasn’t the only pastime eliciting a need for secrecy. Serving as a way station during the Gold Rush, Benicia sprouted all the markings of a 19th century town: saloons, restaurants, hotels, and brothels. Brothels continued to be a part of the town well into the 20th century. Typically concentrated towards the bottom half of First Street, the brothels were frequented by many fishermen and military personnel coming in from the wharves and industrial facilities. During World War II, Benicia is said to have housed 15 brothels, all of which generated an estimated $7 million annually.
How was such a copious amount of even-then-taboo sex work able to flourish so successfully? Many theorize that the underground tunnels provided quick and secretive access for customers. Some Benicians even believe that there are underground connections from old churches to once-brothels, providing men with an easy “Headed to church!” excuse.
Escape Routes for the Elite
Arguably a more proper and kid-friendly explanation, some say that the tunnels were originally created as an escape route for the town’s elite. Believers of this theory claim that there was a tunnel entry point at the Capitol building, connecting to the Clocktower and surrounding buildings. This underground route would allow for the City’s elite to safely escape militaristic threats.
With all potential origin theories centered on secrecy, it’s no surprise they engender such mystery and curiosity. It could be all three explanations, maybe more. Maybe none. They could all be elaborate rumors sustained from near centuries’ worth of town gossip. Given the lack of definitive evidence, it’s up to you to decide why these mysterious hollows exist beneath our city’s streets.