Hidden deep under the ground in downtown Salem is a history of drugs, prostitutes, gambling and even a Chinese black market, all of which were active until 1941 … But illegal partying wasn’t the only reason Salemites used to visit these passages.
“There were thousands of horses on the streets, adding thousands of pounds of manure that would mix with the rain. People didn’t want to walk through that so they went underground from one building to another,” explains Salem historian John Ritter. Ritter has been studying Salem’s history and its tunnels for over 40 years. He also worked at the Oregon State Hospital in the 1970s and got to experience those tunnels first hand.
Ritter says downtown sidewalks have visible reminders of the tunnels, such as purple glass, which provided light to the underground, and metal grates that helped with ventilation.
Hundreds of Chinese immigrants were brought to Salem to work on the railroad, he says, but they were not given return tickets.
“The Chinese were forced to go underground to start their businesses in town. There were Chinese gaming houses and opium dens,” says Ritter.
What happened to Salem’s Chinese population after the tunnels is one of the topics covered in the lecture. Ritter will show some pictures of the tunnels, but unfortunately, there aren’t actual photos from that time.
He has found other types of evidence though, including a beaver trap and whiskey bottles from the 1920s.
“There’s lots to discover! I’m still looking,” he says.
People wanting to walk through Salem’s underground need to obtain permission from the building owners above each tunnel, but that might change soon.
Ritter says there have been talks about having guided tours, and the first one may happen on the First Wednesday in May.
Ritter’s lecture on the Salem underground will take place on February 16, 7 p.m. at Salem Public Library’s Loucks Auditorium.