Once 'state of the art,' storied tunnel below Manitoba's Legislature in need of repair
Hidden from view, the passage once helped someone escape from jail
In the underbelly of Manitoba's political nervous centre, some workers cheated death.
A century ago, they were building a tunnel when they heard an ominous crack — their only warning that several tons of dirt would come tumbling down. The cave-in crushed their manmade supports like matchsticks, the Winnipeg Tribune said. A dozen men leapt out just in time. They narrowly escaped death.
In 1917, a year after it opened, the pathway served as a conduit to freedom.
A prisoner was working in the basement of the Central Power House when he dodged the guards and made a break for it. He exited the passage at the law courts, in the dark grey of a jail gown, as a man on the lam. He was found hours later out on the street. The convicted bootlegger had been celebrating at home with a bottle of liquor, the Winnipeg Tribune said.
The tunnel's actual purpose, however, isn't to facilitate escapes. Nowadays it supplies power to the Manitoba Legislature, law courts and the provincial archives, among others.
"Some 30 years ago, you could just walk in there," Winnipeg architectural historian Randy Rostecki said — but no longer.
Public barred entry
This engineering marvel tall enough to walk through isn't open to the public. Security concerns for a tunnel underneath Broadway have trumped public curiosity.
In fact, the provincial government wouldn't offer a peek, nor any specifics about the significant repairs that are needed. The province put out a request for tenders earlier this month to have the tunnel repaired, alongside $150 million in planned work on the legislative building.
There are myths about other tunnels that may have existed in Winnipeg's core, or of tunnels sealed off, like the supposed route from Fort Garry Hotel to Union Station on the other side of Main Street.
But there is no doubt about the existence of this subterranean passage connecting the Manitoba Legislature on Broadway to the Norquay Building a block to the north on York Avenue, and the electricity it still brings.
"It's an interesting place to explore," Rostecki said.
"It seemed to go on forever and ever, mostly because you were in an enclosed space and it's such a long tunnel," he said. "It was kind of spooky at times, too, because it's not that well-lit."
The tunnel system was a marvel of engineering when it was finished around 1916. While measurements change in different reports, the passage is around seven feet wide and 10 feet tall — "a tunnel the largest of its description in Western Canada," the Winnipeg Tribune said.
At the time of its construction, "the sky was the limit" of the potential that people saw in Winnipeg, Rostecki said.
It was the country's third largest city at the start of the 1910s. In an oft-quoted dispatch from a visiting newspaper, the author declared that "all roads lead to Winnipeg," describing the Prairie city as a hub for commerce.
It was under those impressions that Winnipeg built an imposing legislature and a power network worthy of the city's potential. The decision-makers planned for a campus of government buildings powered by the Central Power House, which still operates to this day.
It didn't happen exactly as planned, Rostecki said. Some buildings were never replaced. The Vaughan Street jail sits empty.
In a frank report from public works staff in 1915, they wrote construction of the new parliament building and new law courts was botched and bungled, except for the tunnel. Later reports encouraged people to see it for themselves.
"It was state of the art," Rostecki said.
"It has shown itself to be versatile enough to be updated, without major changes to the tunnel itself," he said.
As hot as a 'mouthful of hot pepper'
The tunnel network was once frequented by Manitoba's legislators.
It was, and still is, a narrow, concrete-reinforced passage, full of pipes running along the walls. It was especially hot in wintertime. An anonymous MLA penning a newspaper column tried out a few metaphors in describing it — it was as hot as a mouthful of hot pepper, or like burning your tongue on a cup of boiling coffee.
You "emerged in the power house on the other side of the street; and the engineer sees you and says: 'How do you do; members of the legislature, I presume?' And then you faint, because after all that hot tunnel you ain't got enough reserve strength to stand such an imputation as that," the MLA wrote.
Rostecki says the route could help politicians who needed a quick getaway.
"I always thought it would be a good escape route for times of trouble … in case you had a mob sacking the legislative building," he said.
There's a history of politicians needing to retreat, he said. It happened in Newfoundland in 1932 when a riot forced people at the legislature into hiding.