Chico tunnels lore rooted in history

Girl+walking+up+stairs

This photo was taken May 7, 2022 by Molly Myers. Kara Walker walking up the stairs of the cellar under AGD.

The yellow-summery-sorority house, Alpha Gamma Delta (AGD), has a tunnel underneath it that was used not only during the prohibition, but has been used to smuggle cocaine through Madison Bear Garden’s own underground tunnel — so the rumor goes.

The tale of the tunnels is spoken about in every circle of Chico. Allegedly, they wind through Downtown, under the historical houses of Chico like Alpha Gamma Delta, Chico State and even the entire city of Oroville supposedly has tunnels underneath it.

These claims, mostly untrue, are founded in the rich, and sometimes dark, history of Chico. 

Kara Walker, vice president of properties for AGD, was told the cellar under their house once had a tunnel in it. The AGD house was constructed in 1916 and originally owned by Guy Kennedy, Annie Bidwell’s nephew.

This photo shows the AGD house and its large front lawn. The house is yellow and bright in front of a clear blue sky.
This photo was taken May, 7 2022 by Molly Myers. This photo shows the outside of the AGD house.

The tunnel is accessed through a garage that the sorority uses as an art studio. Strewn along the walls are large framed photographs of AGD alumni. Buckets of paint, cellophane and a single roll of toilet paper litter the floor. It’s chaotic, as any art studio should be.

In the back of the garage is an open doorway, where large photographs and plywood boards block almost all of the entrance. Squeezing past these obstructions you are met with an ominous concrete stairwell leading to what some have described as an intricate network of tunnels.

Ominous cellar stairs leading to darkness
This photo was taken May 7, 2022 by Molly Myers. These are the stairs leading to the cellar.

However, Walker said the tunnels have been blocked off and has heard conflicting reports from alumni of the same graduating class regarding the date of their closing.

Before our descent, Walker said there would be various items in the room since it was being used as storage.

We entered a solid, concrete room accompanied by a tire, a single flip flop, and an old desk. There were white-paint swatches on one wall, and graffiti reading “Daddy” on the other. 

She aimed the flashlight at the wall to our left and pointed to where the wall and ceiling meet. Here two different colors and textures were visible. She suggested that perhaps this was from covering up the wall where the tunnel once was. 

“Probably here since it’s facing downtown towards The Bear,” Walker said.

An article titled “RUMOR HAS IT: 10 CHICO STATE MYTHS EXPLORED,” mentions the AGD house and suggests the supposed tunnel connects all the way to Chico State.

This article deemed the rumor of underground tunnels on campus “TRUE.” Despite the article’s claim, Jon Simmons, Chico State’s interim director of facilities operations, said the rumors are not only untrue, but impossible. 

Simmons said that due to the water table from Big Chico Creek, any human-sized tunnel under campus would be constantly flooded. A water table is the underground area that is saturated from a nearby body of water.

What we do have running through campus are lots of pipes that pump water and steam. All of the heating on campus comes from steam that runs through these pipes. These are often called tunnels by those who work in facilities operations.

Simmons said this is where some of the myths originate. To get to these pipes and perform any sort of maintenance one must access them through vaults. The vaults have ladders to enter and go underground, but they don’t actually go anywhere.

Chico State is currently updating some of these pipes where the new behavior and social science building will be. 

Simmons is aware of the rumors. “We have some cool basements, but nothing that connects,” Simmons said. Though, Simmons did inform me that downtown has tunnels.

Some of the businesses downtown rumored to have tunnels include Madison Bear Garden, Tres Hombres and The Banshee.

Jeannette Hassur, administrative analyst for The City of Chico’s building department, has been asked about the rumors before.

“There has been a long-time debate regarding the rumor about tunnels downtown, but there is no evidence in the Building Division records as to the existence of tunnels,” Hassur said. 

The Chico State Today article that “confirms” the tunnels run under Chico State cites the late Chico historian John Nopel. This article links to the Chico Enterprise-Record but it does not link to a specific article.

Likely the article in reference is Steve Brown’s, “But This is Chico: Belief in underground tunnels is alive and well.” 

In this article Brown writes that the late John Nopel said certain downtown businesses had connecting basements, but nothing more. 

Dave Nopel, self-proclaimed wandering dingbat and son of John Nopel, works at Chico History Museum.

In regards to the tunnels Dave Nopel said, “The question still comes up with fair regularity and continues to float about.”

Nopel said how downtown used to have cisterns, big holes in the ground lined with clay bricks that contained water. The purpose of these cisterns was to store water for when fires broke out. Eventually, they became obsolete and were paved over. 

Nopel said that every now and then the city will find one while doing construction, and some people mistake them for remnants of the tunnels. 

Eric Norlie, properties manager and board member of the Chico History Museum, has heard of the conjoining basements. He has been in many of the downtown basements, yet he has never seen any tunnels, or doorways looking like they lead to tunnels. 

Norlie mentioned another tunnel rumor, that the El Rey Theater and Senator Theater have a tunnel leading to and from each other’s green rooms. 

Norlie said the Senator Theater does have a tunnel about 10 feet deep, however it simply leads to the sidewalk and is used only for ventilation. At the end of the tunnel is a fan covered by a grill, sealing the tunnel off from the sidewalk. 

One place the tunnel myth comes from, literally grounded in truth, are the abandoned missile silos out by Chico Municipal Airport. During the Cold War the government funded the construction of the Titan I missile facilities in Northern California.

An article from Chico State alum Tyler Ash, details how these underground silos became a favorite spot for adventurous folk after they were abandoned. In 1992, a Chico State student nearly died from a 20-foot-fall inside the silos.

Much of the myth surrounds Chinese immigrants who migrated to Chico in the 1800s to work on the railroad. After its construction many Chinese stayed in Chico, building their own neighborhoods and working as servants and laborers. The Chinese worked at a much lower cost than their white counterparts.

Many white people blamed the Chinese for their struggles suggesting that they took their jobs. During this time the Chinese were heavily persecuted and resided in their own communities

There was first the Old Chinatown on Flume Street, and later New Chinatown on Cherry Street. Both locations no longer remain. There are varying accounts on whether or not Chico’s Chinatowns had underground tunnels. 

Dave Nopel points to this history suggesting that the tunnels, if real, might have been constructed for protection. “The biggest factor could have been opium,” Nopel said. 

Although opium was popular with the white and Chinese population in Chico, it was still illegal, literally forcing the Chinese to keep their opium dealing underground. 

These rumors vary greatly. One Reddit user suggested the Chinese were forced to build the tunnels so that white people wouldn’t have to look at them as they went to and from work. Often these rumors are attributed to Annie Bidwell with no evidence. 

Author and retired professor of political science at Chico State, Michele Shover, details the conflicting accounts of tunnels in Chico’s Chinatowns in her book, “Exploring Chico’s Past … And Other Essays.”

“The new Chinatown tunnel or hidden hallway’s existence and purpose remain a puzzle,” Shover said.

One Chico News and Review article by Devanie Angel points out how these rumors, which bare no concrete proof, reinforce racist stereotypes about the Chinese. These myths suggest that the Chinese who supposedly made the tunnels were perhaps dishonest and secretive. 

Shover suggests that we come up with these myths to make our towns more interesting.

“It adds a little bit of complexity to daily life,” Shover said.

Every small town has a myth that it wants to be true, whether it’s a network of tunnels or a bottomless lake. 

Sometimes a tunnel is just a basement, and sometimes a seemingly fun rumor is just an echo of a racist past. Behind the fantastic and glamorized myths of Chico, lies a deeply colorful and checkered history.

Despite the lack of evidence confirming the existence of Chico’s tunnels, as Shover puts it, “What really happened was really interesting.”

News article from 1981 about the tunnels
This is a screenshot from The Orion archives taken August 31, 2022. This is an article from 1981 discussing the myth about the tunnels.

Molly Myers can be reached at [email protected].