Do tunnels exist under downtown Prescott?
From the time local resident Patricia Ireland-Williams was a child and regularly visited Prescott until she moved here permanently in 2006, the downtown sidewalks have fascinated her.
Her parents were ministers and ran a summer camp during Ireland-Williams' childhood, and even when they retired from that, they regularly traveled from Phoenix to their cabin all the way through her college years. After residing in Colorado for some time, Ireland-Williams moved back to Phoenix in 1992, and she and her husband, Jack, began the trek to the Prescott cabin again and then became full-time residents.
These many years in the Prescott environs have given her plenty of opportunity to keep an eye on the sidewalks downtown.
"I kept seeing the sidewalks change," she said. "The glass bricks kept disappearing as the infrastructure changed."
Ireland-Williams is a member of the Prescott Pines Questers, a group interested in history and preservation, and when it was her turn to make a presentation to them, she decided "out of curiosity" to find out what might be under those sidewalks and explore the legendary myth about the tunnels snaking around underneath them.
Ireland-Williams researched the subject extensively and acquired many folders of historical information. She got her information from Sharlot Hall Museum, the Prescott Public Library and the Arizona History Museum and not only prepared herself for the Questers presentation but also turned what she discovered into a book, "Underground Prescott," which she published this past year.
The book devotes chapters to Prescott's early history, how the town grew, the Chinese population, the 1900 fire that destroyed Whiskey Row, the speakeasies, the brothels, opium dens and yes, the tunnels and catacombs.
She noted that articles of the past she ran across in her research "didn't take a stand" on the tunnels, nor does she in "Underground Prescott."
Both prominent local historians, Nancy Burgess and Elisabeth Ruffner, say the tunnels do not exist.
Burgess said in a statement to Ireland-Williams, "Most of the basements on North and South Cortez I've been in and have never seen evidence of 'tunnels.' There used to be space below the sidewalks with freight doors and glass tiles, as you mention. Some passages in those areas have been closed off. I am not a 'believer' in the tunnels of downtown Prescott. All of the street work I have witnessed in 20-plus hears has resulted in no evidence of tunnels."'
In the book, Ireland-Williams quotes Ruffner's theory that "dirt might have been removed from the top of Elks Hill when the street car was extended to Ft. Whipple" and she "believes this is why so many basement entries and windows on both Montezuma and Gurley are covered up.." Ruffner also said that her extensive research led her to believe that underground archways are fashioned after Roman architecture and were used to hold up the building above it."
Ruffner refutes the notion of underground tunnels, and Sharlot Hall Museum told Ireland-Williams that records show nothing to validate the existence of the tunnels or catacombs,, and when Whiskey Row burned to the ground, nothing was found. The museum explained that there were "root cellars which were dug before the building construction and some of them had connecting doors or basements." And, a big question is "Who would have built such a long tunnel and who would have paid for it?"
Nonetheless, there are believers in the tunnels, Ireland-Williams said. As she did her research, she spoke to three retired Arizona Public Service employees who told her they had been in the tunnels and down the Row numerous times, but that those areas had been closed off.
Two people told her the empty lot on the corner of Goodwin and Montezuma streets next to the Prescott Chamber of Commerce had housing structures where the Chinese lived and freely moved around town through tunnels.
"Whether there are tunnels or not, people still talk about them and still refer to them as tunnels," Ireland-Williams said. "It's controversial.
"It's like asking people if they believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus," she said. "I look at this the same way. I leave it specifically up to the reader" to decide yea or nay on the tunnels, she said.
But, she adds, "None of us were there" in Prescott's infancy, she said. "I don't take a stand. I wasn't there, but it was fun exploring" this legend.
"The Old West was exciding and filled with mystery and intrigue. All I did was open a little can of worms."
Ireland-Williams' book is available at Sharlot Hall Museum, the Prescott Chamber of Commerce, Hastings, the Peregrine Book Company, Old Sage Book Shop and Amazon and Barnes and Noble on the Internet.