- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - No one’s sure when the stories started or if they’re even true.

But there are some people - old-timers and new - who swear that buried beneath Gillette Avenue’s water mains, storm sewers and utility lines is another piece of Gillette’s history: A tunnel (or tunnels) that allowed Prohibition-era imbibers and gamblers to escape a raided bar, walk beneath Gillette’s main street to the other side and continue their revelry in another establishment.

The supposed triangle of escape ran among the Goings Hotel, the Montgomery Bar and what is now the Center Bar.

Others say the stories are tall tales, fancifully woven within the context of Gillette’s Wild West past and granted credibility by the darker histories that shade both the Goings and the Montgomery.

A third camp says the tunnels may have existed - anything is possible, really - but any subterranean structure has long since filled in, caved in or been in other ways irreparably damaged and lost to the curious passers-by who may wonder what lies beneath their shoes in modern-day downtown Gillette.

Les Cundy counts himself in the third group, and he ought to know.

The upheaval of reconstructing Gillette’s oldest street of commerce isn’t new. Getting it paved in the first place was such an expensive and debt-inducing idea in 1928 that 80 percent of the affected landowners protested, and the city was forced to put the idea on hold. Gillette Avenue eventually became the city’s first paved street in 1931.

Gillette News Record stories unearthed by Rockpile Museum curator Robert Henning say that in October 1929, the city bought 3,000 feet of pipe from Sheridan Iron Works. Construction of curbs, gutters and sidewalks began that same fall. Sometime between then and July 1931, that pipe was installed beneath Gillette Avenue to carry water to every building along the street.

It’s been in use ever since.

Rock Springs contractor Woodward Construction won the bid to pave Second Street and two blocks of Gillette Avenue - less than a mile total - for $25,000 in 1931.

In the 1950s, the entire length of Gillette Avenue was reconstructed, this time with Big Horn Construction at the helm of the work, and Cundy doing the asphalt work for it.

“I’d heard that (about the tunnels), but I never found any down there. If they were there, they were filled in before I ever started working on it,” Cundy said Thursday.

In 1978, the street was reconstructed again, and the storm sewer that serves the area now was installed. Big Horn Construction and Cundy did that work, too.

Coal chutes - a way for heating coal to be delivered to building basements - still poked up out of the street then, and Cundy said he filled those chutes in … but he doesn’t remember seeing a tunnel.

“They had a lot of those along there, but we filled those all up when we did Gillette Avenue last time … that was 1978,” he said.

The tunnel theory faithful, however, can find hope in Bill Dorr’s basement.

Dorr is the principal owner of the Montgomery Bar, an alleged terminus in this tunnel tale. He’s the principal owner because he outlived or bought out the other owners who jointly bought the historic bar in 1966.

The 82-year-old’s eyes lit up one night as he grabbed a flashlight and a set of keys from behind the bar.

“You wanna see the basement?” he asked.

Down the wooden steps at the back of his building, across the packed earth, embraced in cobwebs and yawning in the dark at a pile of debris is a partially bricked-over hole in the Gillette Avenue side of the basement wall.

“Well, I’m sure it was (a tunnel entrance). You can see where it’s been dug out around there,” Dorr said, shining a flashlight through the dusty gloom at the hole situated several feet up his wall. He imagines it’s all caved in now, but the tales of slippery gamblers live on.

“What I’ve been told, see, there was gambling here and at the Goings, and when they’d raid one place, they’d run through this tunnel to the other place,” he said.

Dorr said the basement was dug in 1906 with a two-slip team - it literally was scooped out one horse-powered shovelful at a time.

The original Montgomery Bar burned down, and the building that shelters today’s beer-drinkers and tale-swappers was built in 1919.

Prohibition - the federal government’s failed attempt to guide citizens away from the demons of alcohol - became an enforced law in 1920 as the 18th Amendment.

The 21st Amendment repealed it in 1933, and in those 13 years, thirsty men and women found creative and sometimes violent ways to circumvent the law, and occasionally, pocket a profit.

On the grand moral scale, a tunnel seems innocuous - just a means of getting folks from Point A to Point B with a stiff drink or a good hand of cards at their vest.

Historians studying the era here are reminded that the wildness of the West hadn’t quite been tamed, and unlike the existence of the tunnels, the above-ground shenanigans of gunfights, murder, prostitution and more are well-documented and almost lovingly recited.

Local historian Mary Kelley said she would love to see some antique bottles or other trinkets if the tunnels ever were found. She just hopes there aren’t any bodies.

“When I met with Dustin Hamilton at the city like two days ago, he said, ‘We better not find any tunnels, because they’ll slow us down,’” she said. “I said, ‘You better find some tunnels!’”

She heard about the tunnels from Mark Collins, who heard about them from his dad, local contractor and former Gillette mayor Edd Collins. Edd Collins referred a curious reporter to Cundy … and there sits the still-fragmented tale of an underground mystery. “I was told that’s what I saw (the entrance to a tunnel),” Edd Collins said.

“I’ve done engineering tasks, reviews, of the Goings facility - this was 30 years or so ago - when I asked what had happened to the wall there, they said, ‘Oh, that’s where the tunnel come in.’ … Who knows. Maybe that’s just perpetuating myth, but that’s what I was told.”

When the latest reconstruction of Gillette Avenue gets underway on Wednesday, Kelley, Dorr and Edd Collins will be waiting to hear one thing: What’s down there?

City spokesman Joe Lunne doesn’t think anything is left, if anything ever was there in the first place.

“My feeling, if there was a tunnel, I’m not sure why we wouldn’t have known that when they dug it up the first time,” he said, adding that Gillette Avenue is being torn up almost exactly the way it was in 1978.

“I think if they were there, they were essentially damaged and filled in after the first reconstruction,” he said.

It’s doubtful that without deep and unnecessary digging, the myth of the Gillette Avenue tunnels will ever be proven or debunked.

What’s more likely is that with each reconstruction of the street (another isn’t likely to happen for many decades), another layer of mystery and legend will be added to the story.

___

Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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