The demolition of buildings in downtown Pasco to make way for a Lewis Street overpass uncovered not only a mural but memories of a tunnel system beneath the city.
Former Franklin County Prosecutor Jim Rabideau recently saw what he believed was an entrance to the tunnel in what was left of the basement of a demolished building on Tacoma Street, he said. He has long been interested in the tunnels, which he first heard of more than a half century ago.
Demolition workers did find remains of an old stairwell that appeared to access the tunnels along First Avenue between Lewis and Clark streets, said David Tanner, Pasco senior civil engineer. It has since been filled in with dirt.
“We haven’t gotten into the tunnels themselves,” he said.
Another doorway leading into a blocked-off area was found in the basement of the former home of the Yamauchi family at the corner of Lewis Street and First Avenue, a few feet away from a mural of a seascape that the city has moved for safekeeping.
Roy Satoh of Pasco, who lived in the home growing up, said the doorway was blocked off by lumber when he was a child, and he doesn’t remember seeing it.
But Satoh doesn’t believe the doorway led to the tunnels.
“It was constructed to be a bank,” he said of the building. “They would not want to allow access into the vault area.”
Other Yamauchi family members spent time in tunnels that were underneath downtown Pasco.
Linda Yamauchi Adkinson of Kennewick, Satoh’s cousin, didn’t recall seeing the tunnel system herself, but heard about it from her aunt, Mary Yamauchi Munekiyo, who died in January 2014 at age 104.
Munekiyo said children used to play in the tunnels because it was too hot outside. But that stopped when her grandfather, Harry Yamauchi, found out. Adkinson said the tunnels were built by Chinese immigrants, and were used for gambling, prostitution and opium dens.
“They say there was a lot of hostility and prejudice,” Adkinson said. “There wasn’t a lot for them to do for entertainment. They made their own place to gather.”
Munekiyo recalled going into old underground Chinese dens while looking for someplace cool on hot summer days in a story that appeared in the March 2014 Franklin Flyer, a publication of the Franklin County Historical Society.
The prostitutes, who were smoking and playing cards with the men who were underground, looked out for Munekiyo and her siblings, she said. Munekiyo said the children were asked not to sit down because they might get lice.
“We would see (people) lying on their bunk beds, smoking and we didn’t know ... they would have some brown jelly-like stuff that they put on the pipe ... It smelled pretty bad ... we didn’t know it was opium until we went to school and they were telling us all of that,” Munekiyo said.
Rabideau talked with Munekiyo and others who are no longer alive about the tunnels. Munekiyo told him she went into the tunnels in 1919, when she was 10.
He recalls former historical society President Tennessee Campbell talking about entering the tunnels with two high school boys in the 1930s through an outhouse-like structure near the old Cunningham Hotel.
“It was so dark it scared them,” Rabideau said.
Chinese immigrants who worked in the basement at the Cunningham Hotel built tunnels as “escape paths,” that ran for a block or more under Pasco buildings and streets, Dutch Zimmerman told the Herald in a November 1981 story.
Zimmerman, who owned the hotel during its demolition, said the tunnels were discovered during construction of the Lewis Street underpass, which was completed in 1937.
The city is now demolishing two blocks near the underpass to make way for an overpass that will eventually replace it.
The tunnels traveled between Tacoma Street and First Avenue and might have gone all the way to the Liberty Theater on Fourth Avenue, Rabideau said. They were located beneath the alley between Lewis and Clark streets.
The tunnels are similar to ones in Pendleton built by Asian immigrants in the early 20th century, but, while some of those have been kept in their original state, it is unclear what, if anything, remains under downtown Pasco.
Much of the tunnel network was destroyed when the city rebuilt streets several decades ago, Rabideau said.
Rabideau said he’s surprised by how few people he has been able to find who have been inside the tunnels.
“There were some branch-offs to different places,” he said. “It’s amazing the network.”