Fake History: The myth of Louisville’s tempting Prohibition tunnels

My newspaper family had often heard tales about tunnels connecting Main Street bars and businesses in Louisville, Colorado. One Prohibition-era tunnel, it was said, went 70-feet from the basement of Colacci’s restaurant (now The Empire Lounge & Restaurant) across Main Street to Pasquale’s (now Waterloo).  According to the legend, patrons of the two bars (each a speakeasy because alcohol was illegal) used the tunnel to escape raids by county agents.

After posting (in 2016) the Colacci’s tunnel question to Facebook friends who are Louisville natives, responses ranged from a tunnel that connected Colacci’s, Old Louisville Inn and the Blue Parrot to rumors of a tunnel under the Louisville High School building, torn down in the last few years as a part of the middle school reconstruction.

Another tunnel tale my family heard involves a gambling raid by the county sheriff at the former Bugdust Pool Hall at 916 Main Street. According to legend, some of the two-dozen or so gamblers escaped the grasp of the authorities via an underground tunnel. The gambling raid part of the story is true, because it made the Denver newspapers. But we never found anything indicating the presence of a tunnel when our Louisville Times newspaper offices later occupied the same building.

Oddly enough, a family friend showed up at the newspaper office one day with a metal detector and asked to “sweep” the basement. The legend he’d heard was that the gamblers hid a cash box as the sheriff’s raid unfolded. He didn’t find anything.

A big fat nothing

While it’s possible that a bar-to-bar tunnel paralleled Main Street at some point, work crews excavating the length of Main Street over 30 years ago for a public works project — water, sewer and storm drainage — found no traces of tunnels crossing the street. No voids, no collapsed or disturbed soil, no rotted wood cribbing. Nothing.

A commenter on the same Louisville Facebook group said he’d worked at Colacci’s and that he saw no trace of a tunnel in the basement. This makes sense because Boulder County Clerk and Recorder property records show that the Colacci’s building, and its substantial concrete foundation, was built in 1957, almost 25 years after the end of Prohibition.

Drunk chickens

A tunnel legend in the residential part of town, in Carolyn Conarroe’s book “Louisville Legends: The Record as History,” involved drunk chickens and a bootlegger (of course!). An Old Town Louisville resident suspected the presence of a whiskey still after noticing cars continuously pulling up to the neighbor’s shed, and no sign that the neighbor ever traipsed between his house and the shed. Chickens were also seen staggering about the backyard (from eating the mash?), so the nosy Old-Towner suspected that a bootlegger was plying his trade, and that a tunnel connected the house to the shed.

The king of all legends involves tunnels connecting Louisville’s former Front Street saloons. The legend, which was given new life in the early 1990s by restaurateurs eager to attract new clientele, said that coal miners built the tunnels to escape snooping wives, or to flee when a sheriff’s deputy or town marshal decided to inspect the establishment.

The lay of the land

Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1893 and 1900 show six saloons operating along Louisville’s Front Street, which at the time was the town’s main avenue for commerce.

According to Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, coal production in Boulder County reached its peak in 1907, with 25 mines cranking out 1,399,518 tons of coal. Saloons reached their heyday a year later, with 13 saloons along Front Street showing on the 1908 Sanborn fire insurance map. The same map also shows fire hydrants and an underground four-inch water pipe running down the center of Front Street from the north edge of town to one block south of Pine Street.

As coal output declined after 1908, the labor force dwindled too. By 1916, the Boulder County Directory listed no saloons on Front Street, which had reverted to mostly residential. Two pool halls, one on Front and one on Main Street, are listed. Mary Francia is listed as the owner of a restaurant at Front and South Street.

During Prohibition (and the demise of saloons everywhere), the 1921 Boulder County Directory lists four Louisville pool halls, one on West Pine and three on Main Street. Mike Colacci’s Blue Parrot had opened at Main and Pine, and Di Francia’s, still on Front Street, was listed as a “soft drinks” business. In 1926 there were four pool halls listed as well, three on Main Street and one on East Pine.

A telling clue of possible subterranean Front Street tunnels is bricked-up openings in the basements of the old buildings, including the former Old Louisville Inn (now 740 Front Restaurant). But a lot of Old Town structures had some kind of passageway cut or built into the foundation to accommodate unloading and storage of coal for coal-fired furnaces. And the pragmatic side of me would argue that a coal miner whose livelihood was working in a dark, dusty and dangerous tunnel wouldn’t want to spend his time off — or his summer when the mines were idle — building the same.

Additionally, the logistics of constructing a hobby tunnel loom large. Nothing in a coal mine — soil, coal, clay, shale, hard rock — was removed without it first being blasted with black powder or dynamite. Colorado’s heavy clay soil is just too tough to pick at with hand tools, as many a miner that sunk a shaft has attested to. Then the dirt that was excavated had to be transported several hundred feet and piled somewhere above ground, followed by some type of timber bracing to keep the tunnel from collapsing. With trees at a premium, getting enough timber bracing for a clandestine escape tunnel would have been expensive and time consuming.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that a shallow tunnel or underground access could have been excavated sideways, from one foundation to another, on any block in Old Town Louisville. Easy to do, easy to undo. I do have doubts about shallow tunnels crossing Louisville rights-of-way. There is no physical evidence, and never has been, to support the claim. (Saying that a bricked up foundation is a tunnel entrance is not physical evidence of a tunnel. It’s just evidence that someone removed a portion of a foundation and repaired it.)

Barriers to building a “hobby” tunnel that is described in legend:

• How was the soil excavated? The heavy clay soil in Louisville and Lafayette is very difficult to remove with pick and shovel. So much so that when area mine shafts were sunk, explosives were the tool of choice. Never mind that very few people, even drunk people, would want to light a stick of dynamite and then scurry on their hands and knees to exit the tunnel before the explosion. And who’s the poor sap that had to crawl back in the tunnel and check the fuse if a charge failed to detonate? Wouldn’t someone, especially town managers who laid the town’s primitive and delicate water pipes, get suspicious of shallow explosions every four or five hours under the street?

• Where did all the soil go? Removing hundreds of tons of dirt in even a small tunnel would require some kind of track & trolley system to shuttle the dirt out of the tunnel. Who had the time and money to build that? And, after the dirt was brought into the basement of Colacci’s or Old Louisville Inn, a process that would have taken dozens of men to accomplish, who hauled it up the stairs a bucket at a time? Wouldn’t there be traces of piles of discarded dirt near the building for such an endeavor?

• How was the roof of the tunnel supported? Even modern trenches dug with excavators are shored up to prevent collapse. Such a tunnel would have been timbered, so there’d there be traces of it when water, sewer and storm drainage lines have been replaced along Louisville’s streets? Right? And who paid for the timbers and where did they come from? Because even the coal companies had difficulties sourcing adequate wood for their coal mine haulageways. (Most of it came by railroad from southern Colorado.)

• Lastly, who would want to risk their life building a tunnel after a hard day of work risking their life as a coal miner? Sure, lots of beer can turn meek men into brave men, but wouldn’t it be easier just to drink lots of beer and make up grand tales of underground escapes?

Fake tunnel, real tunnel

During my grade school years at Louisville Elementary School, a classmate told exotic tales of exploring tunnels via a secret door in his grandmother’s basement. He’d walked Louisville’s coal mine tunnels, he said, and they were awesome. After weeks of cajoling him to let others (me) share in the adventure, he agreed to take me along. Turned out the “tunnel,” in the basement of his grandmother’s very old home on the south side of Louisville, was an exterior underground coal storage bin. A door led to the dark and dank coal bin, still partially filled with coal slag. The underground bin on the side of the house, replete with tree and grass roots hanging from the ceiling, didn’t lead anywhere, but was mysterious enough to allow my classmate’s imagination to flourish.

By the way, my childhood interest in exploring Louisville’s coal mine tunnels seemed completely normal and routine. They were there to be conquered. In the early 1970s, a boyhood buddy and I visited the slope entryway to the Fireside Mine, which was located in an open field on the hill west of my Capitol Hill neighborhood — about where today’s Via Appia runs. The skeletal side-by-side entryways for a coal mine that operated from 1933 to 1944 were too inviting for curious kids to ignore. One opening, a large but enclosed L-shaped concrete structure, was probably used for ventilation for the mine. It had an above-ground entry and exit. The other, a 6-foot by 6-foot root-cellar like opening to a dark inclined tunnel, was equally enticing. And the most exciting aspect was that we had absolutely no clue where it went. What more could a kid ask for?

We could see in the dim light that the tunnel was blocked by a cobbled together mesh fence about 20 feet underground. Undaunted, my friend and I slid down the tunnel as far as the fence and found an impromptu barrier that would have been easy to shimmy around. Gladly, I’m here today because the 20 degree angle of the incline, and the darkness beyond, was a convincing deterrent. That and my buddy’s insistence that he wasn’t going any farther because “the mine gasses would kill us.”

A 1981 Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Plan to close unsafe mine openings proposed by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources cited the numerous open coal mine shafts and air vents in east Boulder County. The report said that “near Louisville, an open incline into the Fireside Mine was located within a few hundred yards of residential neighborhoods. This opening was considered an extreme hazard since the mine workings are still collapsing and a roof fall could kill or injure children who often use the opening as a play area.”

The report left out the words “and a roof fall could have killed or injured Doug Conarroe and his friend who often used the opening as a play area.” The good news is that the Fireside Mine entrance was permanently sealed around 1983.

So there you have it — my coal mine tunnel tale which is more fact than myth. I hope there’s still room for it on the Internet.