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New Digs

by Dave Yanko

-- all images courtesy The Tunnels of Moose Jaw
The grandly-appointed "speakeasy" features animatronic characters.

MOOSE JAW -- Visitors to the "The Chicago Connection" tour at the Tunnels of Moose Jaw attraction here in south-central Saskatchewan are greeted by "Fanny", an actor/guide in a flapper costume who welcomes them as bootleggers who've arrived in town to buy booze.

She opens a door that leads from a waiting room above a modern downtown restaurant into a 1920s-era "speakeasy''

occupied by a bartender and a piano player who's pounding out a ragtime tune for a solitary and besotted patron slouched over a table. Fanny seats her "bootleggers" at surrounding tables, requests and receives silence from the piano player and introduces the bartender.

"Welcome to Moose Jaw, folks,'' says the barman, who along with the drunk and the piano player are actually state-of-the-art animatronic figures. "Keep a low profile and everything will be okay.''

That would have been pretty good advice for any bootlegger visiting Moose Jaw back in the 1920s.

Perfomer/guide "Gus", a suspicious security man.

Then, this little prairie city was the hub of a mammoth liquor distribution network that funneled booze south into an America parched by Prohibition (1920-33). During Prohibition in Saskatchewan (1917-24), meanwhile, speakeasies and "blind pigs'' flourished in Moose Jaw, particularly on notorious River Street. So did gambling and prostitution.

Moose Jaw Police Chief Walter P. Johnson never managed to stanch the flow of booze or put a halt to its associated evils. But he did manage to acquire a small fortune through his friendly relationships with gangsters, some say with Chicago crime boss Al Capone himself.

Of Chief Johnson, the barkeep warns: "Stay out of his way or be ready to pay.''

So begins a tour through one of the most colorful and fascinating chapters in Canadian -- and American -- history. It was a time when Capone put the "organized'' into "organized crime" by orchestrating a North-America wide "business empire" that reputedly raked in $100 million a year -- that's more than Henry Ford was making manufacturing automobiles. Moose Jaw, where plentiful supplies of imported and Saskatchewan-distilled booze could be obtained and shipped by rail through Minneapolis to Chicago, played an important role in the operations.

Main Street Moose Jaw in the 1920s

The one-hour tour of the basements and connecting tunnels beneath main-street Moose Jaw, where much of the illicit activity occurred, employs actor/guides interacting with the bootleggers to present an interpretive view of Moose Jaw's "Chicago Connection" in the 1920s.

"It's a combination of educating people in an entertaining way, and allowing them to interact with history -- to be a part of history,'' says Jeff Grajczyk, general manager of The Tunnels of Moose Jaw.

Grajczyk, whose company took over management of the attraction from a local non-profit organization in June 2000, says the previous tunnel tour was on the right track. He says he and his partner simply "took it to the next level''.

Instead of a narrative approach, the new attraction employs animatronics, meticulously-designed spaces, carefully-researched background information and actor/guides interacting with visitors to show the "Chicago Connection". An actor/guide who plays the security boss of Capone's Moose Jaw operations, for example, is a suspicious gangster who nonetheless invites visiting bootleggers to fondle his (authentic) Thompson submachine gun (the weapon is much heavier than one might suspect). Later, a brewmaster tells the bootlegggers how a barrel of fresh hooch can be "transformed" into five-year-old whiskey with just two or three drops of sulfuric acid.

The Chicago Connection tour is a big hit with visitors -- it's history heavy on entertainment. But it's not all of Moose Jaw's "underground" history.

Prior to Prohibition, the tunnels and basements were the sunless domain of Chinese immigrants who lived and toiled in steam laundries and gunny-sack factories. Many worked to save money to pay the "head tax" required for Canadian citizenship.

Chinese immigrants lived, worked and slept (background bunks) beneath the streets of Moose Jaw

Their story is told in "Passage to Fortune", an honest and moving presentation that pulls few punches in dealing with the racist attitudes in North America 100 years ago, and how Chinese Canadians rose above them to find happiness and prosperity.

The Tunnels of Moose Jaw organization has tapped into a rich vein of history that's been largely ignored until now. And the current tours are just the beginning, according to Grajczyk.

A new one in the planning stages will focus more specifically on rum running in Moose Jaw during the 1920s. And in 2001, Tunnels will unveil the River Street amphitheatre, a 400-seat facility where tourists will join entertainers for an interactive look at the city's wild and wonderful history.

Grajczyk is optimistic about the future.

"When we talk to other people in the (historical attractions) industry about the stories here,'' says Grajczyk, "it's like: 'Wow! You can't make up stuff like that!'''.

Tunnels of Moose Jaw tours run year 'round. For more information, visit their web site here.

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