Oct 27, 2011 9:50 PM by Nancy Chen

What Lies Beneath: The truth behind San Luis Obispo's tunnels

The tunnels running underneath downtown San Luis Obispo are dark and mysterious, full of intrigue. Plenty of locals insist they were used during the Prohibition era for speakeasies and smuggling.

As a bartender at Bull's Tavern in the 1980s, Bill Hales heard quite a few stories, but these were different.

They were old-timers musing over times past, re-living their days of drinking moonshine underneath Bull's during Prohibition.

"The guys that would saunter into the bar on Sunday afternoon, they spoke about it like it was yesterday, so it was pretty crystal clear," Hales, the current owner of Bull's as well as Frog and Peach Pub, said.

The tunnels are indisputable, but the stories aren't.

"It's a place that is just surrounded by all sorts of intrigue," said Dan Krieger, a prominent San Luis Obispo historian.

Krieger says the passageways were built in the late 1870's but never used as speakeasies or for smuggling. Instead, he says the stories are simply urban legends. When asked if there's any possibility he's wrong, he laughed.

"No," he said. "I wish I were, because it would sell books."

Krieger says the creek stopped San Luis Obispo from expanding southeast in the late 1800's, but businesses wanted to keep developing.

"So what did enterprising people do?" he said. "They put boards--the equivalent of plywood boards--across the creek."

They were built so wide, horses could be led through the tunnels the boards created.

"The boards grew and grew," he said. "Eventually, they were paved over, and we had an underground city."

But that doesn't mean booze wasn't readily available.

"People drank almost in public during Prohibition," he said.

The Central Coast was one of the best places to smuggle in alcohol. Krieger says almost all the moonshine that came into California arrived right here from Mexico and Canada through ports like those in Avila Beach and Morro Bay.

The stories about the tunnels and Prohibition, Krieger says, are simply false.

"They have everything to do with the way we want to picture ourselves," he said. "It isn't necessarily so, but it sure could have been, and isn't it fun to look at it that way?"

Krieger points out several taverns that did exist during Prohibition, where the man sipping a whiskey next to you could be the sheriff, another reason people didn't need to go underground for a good time.

Hales, however, says he'll continue to believe those old-time customers of his.

"I know what I want to believe," he said. "And that's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

Krieger says the stories should be still be enjoyed.

"Oral traditions are not always the truth, the absolute truth," he said. "But what they represent is the spirit of a place. And it's the spirit of a place that makes San Luis Obispo the wonderful town that it is."

However, even if those tunnels may not have necessarily been used for moonshine, Krieger says there are tunnels that were on the Central Coast.

In Pismo Beach, for example, passageways that run underneath the 101 once served as illicit places for prostitution and drinking.

That doesn't mean the tunnels in san luis obispo are entirely innocent though.

Krieger says criminals running from police have used them in the past, but they were mainly used for drainage and storage.

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