It’s a strange tale to tell, one filled with a sense of awe and melancholy. It’s the story of the once extensive network of tunnels and dwellings beneath the streets of downtown Oklahoma City. Most of the “above ground” residents had heard rumors, but weren’t sure if it really existed. Entrances to the subterranean ‘city’ were often hidden or disguised. Mother’s took advantage of the mystery by warning unruly children to behave lest they were dragged off to a lair far below, never to be seen again.
Indeed, an underground multi-leveled complex was found extending deep into the earth. According to some accounts, there was even a third level Buddhist temple and cemetery built by the residents.
Sometimes referred to as the “underground Chinatown”, its inhabitants probably came to escape racism. When railway projects were completed there began to be mass lay-offs, and sentiment toward the Chinese soured, notes University of Central Oklahoma historian Bing Li.
In 1877, white workers in California rioted and blamed the hard-working, poorly paid Chinese laborers for driving wages so low. In 1878, the federal court ruled that Chinese people could not become citizens. They were no longer welcome to live in the country they had just helped connect. Chinese immigrants began to migrate inland where the prejudice seemed less severe. By the time they arrived in Oklahoma, they had learned it was best to be discreet and avoid attention. For a variety of reasons, some of them literally went underground.
In 1921, The Oklahoman newspaper reported on an inspection of a 50-room "colony” below 14 S Robinson Ave. An excerpt follows:
Witnesses: Six inspectors of the state health department; one police detective.
They waded into Oklahoma City's Chinatown Wednesday and visited all its nooks ever seen by white man, and came away reporting the 200 or more inhabitants of the submerged quarter in good health and surroundings and as sanitary as all get out. In all, an underground resident, Hauan Tsang, led the officials through more than "a dozen connected caverns.”
That may have been just the tip of the iceberg. No one is sure just how connected the underground dwellings were, nor how far they reached but, "If recollections by some residents are correct,” The Oklahoman reported in 1969, "an underground ‘Chinese city' once extended from the North Canadian River to NW 17 and Classen — quite a distance for digging tunnels. Most historians doubt the underground network could have extended that far, but it does appear it covered at least an area of several city blocks.
Another portion of the subterranean ‘city' was discovered in April 1969 when wrecking crews demolishing unused buildings in the downtown area and found a set of "expertly handcrafted stone stairs” in an alley behind the Commerce Exchange Building at Robinson and Sheridan avenues, Li said. The steep steps ended at a scarred, wooden door sealed with an intricate Chinese padlock and leather straps.
The city council debated whether or not they should preserve the new discovery as a historic site. Former Mayor George Shirk — the director of the Oklahoma Historical Society — led an expedition into the abandoned ruins. Jim Argo, then a photographer for The Oklahoman, went along to take pictures.
"Shirk took us down there to see this place,” Argo said. "He told us it was a Chinese laundry and opium place. ... We went down that narrow flight of stairs until we were down in the basement. They had little individual rooms where people lived, about the size of a prison cell. I don't think there was any outside light coming in.”
The area was broken into smaller rooms, made of wood or wallboard, while the floors were composed of damp cement. In all, the chambers occupied a space about 50 feet wide by 140 feet long. Shirk's explorers also found a second Robinson Avenue entrance. It was not recorded how far below the surface they explored, but they did discover at least two more levels below the buildings' basement level, so the underground city had to have been quite deep.
"Shirk guessed that similar rooms exist under the remainder of the block,” The Oklahoman reported, "but no access to them were found.”
City council members later decided that the future of the area was more important than its past. The site is now buried beneath “urban renewal”. Perhaps somewhere deep beneath the bustling city, rests a decaying temple with a hundred year old Buddha watching over the graves of some of the underground city’s inhabitants.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
Slideshow of Shirk’s Findings: