Crouched in the darkness, you slosh through a murky stream as something rumbles overhead. You manage to shine your feeble flashlight on the cramped walls, and see something written in dripping red paint: call your mom more often.
Welcome to the tunnels of Victoria. While there are extensive variations of urban myths surrounding Victoria’s historic underground, very few are actually rooted in fact.
“I’ve looked into every hole that’s been dug in Chinatown for the past 30 years and no — there’s nothing exciting down there,” says John Adams, local historian and owner of Discover the Past Walking Tours. Adams first became interested in Victoria’s underground in 1960, when he moved to the city and began “prowling around back alleys” with his friends in search of rumoured smuggling tunnels.
“From the Parliament Buildings, there’s a tunnel that I have been in many times that goes under Government Street to the Douglas Building,” Adams says. “It was really just to provide safe and dry access for people going between the Parliament Buildings and the other middle building, which is called the Bunker, and then under the street to the Douglas Building.”
“When I was a kid, that was just open — you could go back and forth if you wanted to,” he adds. “Today, for security reasons, they have closed it off and you need access codes to get in.”
These tunnels have been closed to the public for several decades, and function primarily for utility.
Many subterranean structures around downtown Victoria believed by the public to be evidence of tunnels are actually bricked-up areaways, Adams explains. “Areaways are pretty standard features in many places . . . it’s basically just an extension of the basement.”
The most evident areaways lie beneath sidewalks, and can be spotted by the grids of purple glass prisms built into the ground above them. “The glass blocks act like a skylight to provide light, and the areaway under the sidewalk can just be used for extra storage, or in many cases where you see [a] hatchway, it’s used for deliveries,” says Adams.
Installed around 1915, the glass slowly turned purple with age. Although some of the prisms have been removed or filled in, they are still visible in several locations along Fort, Broughton, Johnson, Douglas, and Blanchard.
In recent years, urban explorers and graffiti artists have turned a tunnel channeling Bowker Creek under the Hillside Mall into what is known colloquially as the “Hall of Wonders.” While these “wonders” in question are predominantly cobwebs, waterlogged trash, and the fear of encountering something living (or worse — not living), the diverse gallery of graffiti is the main attraction.
“Great 3rd date,” “Beware of what lies ahead,” “Call your mom more often,” and “RUN,” are just some of the messages individuals have chosen to paint across the tunnel’s walls. Also central to the “Hall of Wonders” is an extensive series of murals depicting the history of life on Earth, starting with the Big Bang.
Adams warns that people should not explore underground areas illegally and without proper preparation or experience, especially due to the possibility of encountering poisonous gasses. But most of all, he emphasizes the importance of preserving civic courtesy.