MC Underground: Tunnels and vaults were common

Amorette Allison
Friday, July 5, 2019

In 1994, the city of Havre opened an unusual tourist attraction — Havre Beneath the Streets. Like most towns, the buildings in Havre’s business district had basements but unlike most towns, there were a number of businesses in the basements. After a fire in 1904 destroyed most of Main Street above ground, a number of businesses opened in the basements that survived.

Ninety years later, residents of Havre decided to take advantage of that unusual history. They cleared out the junk that had built up over the years in the basements, brought in antiques, and recreated a block and a half of underground Havre complete with sausage factory, bakery, brothel, barber shop, Chinese laundry, grocery store, hardware store, opium den, pharmacy, tamale stand and blacksmith shop.

Miles City doesn’t have quite the same underground history but an article in the July 1, 1944 issue of the Miles City Star told about Miles City’s underground. It ran as a sidebar to Havre’s story.

The story explained some of the various underground spaces that Miles City had. The steam tunnels were the most extensive underground network.

A steam-powered electric plant behind the current Montana Dakota Utilities office provided the city’s electricity. All towns had their own power plants in the early days of electricity, before long distance power lines were developed and constructed.

In producing the electricity, the plant also produced steam. Tunnels were constructed to connect a number of downtown buildings to the system and provide them with steam. In the 1920s, it was a cutting-edge system and most of the big buildings downtown didn’t have their own heating plants. They were connected to the tunnels.

Some of the tunnels ran under sidewalks and the heat kept the sidewalks clear in the winter.

The system lasted until the early 1950s, although the MDU plant itself, and its tall chimney, weren’t demolished until the early 1970s.

The 1994 article states “Over the years, many of the tunnels have been filled in as sidewalks have been replaced, according to Pat Rogers, city engineer. The longest portion of the remaining tunnel runs west from KMCA/KMTA to the corner of Fifth Street and around the corner south toward the alley. Other portions of open areas are scattered from Fifth to Tenth Street.”

I have been told but have no written proof that there were tunnels from the old Miles City Laundry to the Olive Hotel to allow laundry to be moved protected from inclement weather and street dirt. That might be the same steam tunnel that is mentioned above.

Supposedly, tunnels connected the Miles Howard and Milligan Hotels either for laundry runs or for an airpowered change system, such as were used in oldfashioned department stores.

I do know there are still some vaults under sidewalks. To create extra storage space, basements were extended under the sidewalks, on Main Street as well as on side streets. In the old Cellar Casino, there used to be a door and a window in basement that once lead into a vault.

The window wasn’t for a view but for light. Glass blocks were placed in concrete sidewalks to provide light for lower levels. These blocks turned purple in the sun and when I was young, there were several spots with purple blocks still extant.

The last of these skylights was in the 400 block, on the north side of the street, in front of the old Coca-cola bottling plant. A piece of heavy equipment was parked on the sidewalk by someone who didn’t know the space underneath was hollow and it fell through.

There were also a number of metal doors in the sidewalks in my youth. These allowed access to the sidewalk vaults from above. I can remember one of them being open and the metal lift rising up out of the vault in front of me once, long ago.

To the best of my recollection, there is still one of these sets of metal doors on a side street, but I don’t know if it accesses anything.

I believe all the tunnels that crossed Main Street and most of the Main Street vaults have been filled in. There is at least one building in town that still has a basement that extends under the Main Street sidewalk. There is no separation between the basement and the vault.

In other buildings, the vaults are closed off by a door and some still serve as storage spaces.

Another use of the tunnels and vaults was during Prohibition. There were speakeasies in a number of places in Miles City, including under the streets.

“David Rivenes explained that if there was a raid, the speakeasy customers would escape by using the tunnels and ‘without delay they could be having a sandwich at the Met Cafe, and the federal agents would be unable to catch them.’ “

Speaking of the Met Cafe, did you know there is an old swimming pool buried just off Main Street. It was the Milligan plunge, when the Milligan Hotel stood where Veteran’s Park is now.

There is lots of history down below in all towns. Next time you are in the basement of an old building, look around.

( Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)