Oct 27, 2011 9:40 PM by Nancy Chen

What Lies Beneath: A tour of San Luis Obispo's underground passageways

For many of us, unwinding after a long day includes a nice glass of wine.

Getting a drink wasn't always so easy from 1920 to 1933, during Prohibition. It's no secret many broke the rules and sold booze anyway, and some watering holes on the Central Coast were among the worst in the state.

Now, almost a century later, the ban is long gone, but proof of how those determined drinkers got their alcohol remains.

On most Friday nights, the usual hot spots are packed.

And according to legend, another former hot spot lies right underneath our feet--tunnels that doubled as speakeasies during Prohibition.

"Those in the know knew where to go," said Bill Hales, the owner of Bull's Tavern as well as Frog and Peach Pub.

Hales also tended bar at Bull's in the 1980's, and like any bartender, he's heard his fair share of tall tales. But he says the stories he heard about Prohibition were straight from the source.

"Old timers would come in, usually while their wives or daughters were at church," Hales said. "They didn't feel like they wanted to go to church. They felt more comfortable at Bull's."

The men reminisced about drinking in San Luis Obispo during Prohibition, far underneath probing eyes.

"I think it was more just if you were with the right circle of friends, you knew where to go," he said. "I don't think it was the 'Knock-knock, Mugsy sent me.' I think it was more, 'All right, let's close the doors, open up the hatch, let's get down and have some fun.'"

According to some local historians, the truth in those tales is questionable.

But the tunnels are real, an underground world that used to lead from one store to another, snaking their way along the creek.

By most accounts, the real mouth to the maze--the center of it all--is underneath the old bull's tavern, which is now home to SloCo Pasty.

"Basically, what I've heard is that this basement space used to be kind of a speakeasy," said owner Gwynne Stump, who was now converted it into a pristine basement.

Artifacts, however, remain.

"There's an old safe," she pointed out. "They do not know how to open it."

Retrofitting and remodeling over the years have blocked most of the tunnels, turning them into storage spaces.

One version of the tale is that people made alcohol below Bull's and took it underneath the street to what is now Cielo Cantina before bringing it to the creek, where it would be taken by boat to be sold elsewhere.

Another version has bar owners bringing in alcohol from boats on the creek.

"I don't know where it would have led, but this is leading in the direction of where the tunnel would have been across the street," Stump said, pointing to a blocked-off tunnel underneath her store.

The passageway would have led into what is now HepKat; the clothing boutique was once a dry-goods store, and it too has its hidden history.

The former owner, for example, used to boast about fishing indoors.

"As a child, he used to catch steel-headed trout through this little door," said current property manager Dale Anderson as he opened a small wood panel on the floor near the entrance. "So if you open this up, it goes directly into the creek."

But the biggest surprise underneath these wood floors is a large and intricate vault, where the air is musty, and the dirt floor cracked.

A door once led directly to the creek; it now leads into another empty space, created when the city put in concrete walls lining the creek.

The subterreanean world continues onward, southwest on Higuera, running underneath Novo and Frog and Peach, until it hits Creekside Brewing, now home of its own basement bar, where excavations years ago turned up more evidence of moonshine.

"They discovered some ceramic bottle caps from a pre-Prohibition brewery somewhere in this area," said owner John Moule.

Yet another souvenir of times past buried in the layers. The stories have changed. The owners have too, and the tunnels themselves are simply dark places filled with cobwebs now.

But the real truth about why they are there and what they were used for, well, that may have been buried here too.

KSBY News talked to a prominent local historian about what his research about the tunnels has uncovered. Click here for that story.

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