Touring the Tunnels of Moose Jaw

Nathan Liewicki
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Kyle Morhart, who acts as "Gus" for the Chicago Connection tour with The Tunnels of Moose Jaw briefly relaxes in a chair following a Saturday tour.

Times-Herald reporter gives first-hand account of tourist attraction

Undoubtedly, one of our city’s biggest tourist attractions is the Tunnels of Moose Jaw. 

On Saturday, I finally had the opportunity to join a group of interested onlookers on both tours – the Chicago Connection and Passage to Fortune.

What follows is a sampling of what I saw learned and heard during the tours.

***

Rushing from the Times-Herald office down Main Street toward the Tunnels, I snuck a quick peak at my phone. It read 3:28 p.m.

Despite my shortcomings, I flung open the door to the Tunnels at exactly 3:30 p.m. I made it on time.

Or so I thought.

Apparently the first tour I was scheduled to be on started five minutes early. Who knew?

Anyhow, I was given tickets to both tours and told my tour would meet me at the bottom of a stairwell below the Chocolate Moose Fudge Factory.

A few kicks of the door later, Mrs. Dawson – the steam engineer’s wife – let me in.

The first room I walked into was somewhat of a shock. I wondered why there were objects and texts that were probably related to something from China.

That’s when I realized I was on the Passage to Fortune Tour.

It soon became apparent that each member of our tour had become “coolies” – a Chinese immigrant working in Canada, specifically in Moose Jaw.

Led by Mrs. Dawson, the tour wound through wide and narrow tunnels, making stops at various areas, including where coolies ate meals and slept in tiny, wooden bunk beds.

I couldn’t imagine giving half my $0.70 an hour wage to live in dungeon-like living quarters, but that’s what coolies had to do.

Not only did coolies have to give half of our wages for shelter and a bit of food, but they also had had to work with lye.

That laundry chemical, mixed with hot water, burned the hands of coolies. Then again, the coolies were doing whatever was necessary in order to provide for their families back home.

Our guide, who ceased to be the strict Mrs. Dawson, told us coolies had to keep paying off the Chinese Head Tax that had been placed on all immigrants.

Sometimes the fee – just to work in Canada, on the railroad – was as high as $500 per person.

As stressful as the work was, spending time in the opium dens served as a relaxant for coolies, as did gambling. In fact, I learned on the tour that it was legal to sell and smoke opium in Canada until 1912.

Skip ahead 11 years and the head tax was gone.

With the coolies no longer having to pay the head tax, they could put more money toward starting their own businesses and restaurants in the Friendly City.

***

The Chicago Connection tour was less about the history and more about the entertainment and lifestyle that came to Moose Jaw during prohibition, as a result of Al Capone’s ventures here.

Ms. Fanny led the first half of our tour. Full of comedy, she led us bootleggers through the office and bedroom that looked similar to what Capone may have spent time in during his time in Moose Jaw.

She was careful to note Capone’s bulletproof chair, similar to the ones he had in Chicago.

Eventually we were led down into the tunnels and awaited Gus.

Bringing with him even more hilarity, Gus’ constant references to one gentleman as ‘doorstop,’ one lady as ‘muscles’ and myself as ‘note taker,’ it was the most enjoyable part of the tour.

That and Gus’ handling of some ammunition-free guns that Capone and his gang was also quite surreal.

But as bootleggers we were constantly told to “forget about it” – in a thick Italian accent, while gesturing with our fingers. That was especially true as we ran through the tunnels from the sound of gunfire.

Nobody wanted to wear any bullets.

***

The Tunnels aren’t expected to change the structure of their tours over the coming months, but why mess up a good thing?

Adults can attend either tour for $15 and both tours for $25. Seniors aged 65-plus will be charged $12 for one tour and $21 for both tours. Rates for youth ages 13-18 are $11.50 and $20 respectively, while children ages six to 12 cost $8.50 and $14 to go on one or two tours. Children five and under are free.

Next time I go on the tours – yes, there will be a next time – I will do so not as a journalist, but as an interested observer.

Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks

Organizations: Chicago Connection

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, Canada, China Friendly Chicago

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