“While the rest of the country was forced to go dry, underneath Downtown Los Angeles the party never stopped.” — Atlas Obscura
Unbeknownst to most, downtown Los Angeles holds a mysterious secret. Beneath the trendy bars and million dollar lofts lies an intricate web of underground service tunnels stretching 11 miles long. Because L.A. was so dependent on the revenue from alcohol sales, Prohibition completely clogged the city’s economy. From the wealthy to mobsters to blue-collar workers, all escaped to the underground haven.
Used as passageways to basement bars and speakeasies, the tunnels allowed the party to go on despite the dry laws above. Clandestine storefronts offered legitimacy to the illegal activities below. Fortunately for partygoers, the mayor’s office ran the supply of moonshine and turned a blind eye to any illicit dealings these innocuous storefronts were engaged in.
One such establishment was the piano store on Fifth and Main. At King Eddy Saloon, business not only boomed before Prohibition, but also prospered under it, thanks to local officials who took no issue with the sudden interest in music by King Eddy. Still in business today, King Eddy Saloon still connects to the tunnel system where remnants of its debaucherous days can be seen in the crumbling bricks and graffiti-strewn walls of its storage room.
Rumor has it the complex network of tunnels, which stretch from Spring and Temple to First and Grand, was also used by banks to move large sums of cash, especially during tax season when property owners paid their taxes in cash. Reports state that cash would pile up in one local official’s office to the tune of $1 billion. All that cash would be transported below ground under heavy security detail until it sat safely inside the bank vaults. Other sources claim police used the tunnels to transport prisoners while coroners and mobsters used the tunnels to store bodies, though these claims are unsubstantiated.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to access the tunnels today as officially they are closed to the public. One of the entry points — the basement of the Hall of Justice — was sealed off after the building suffered damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. To explore the “former highway of the L.A. underground,” you must sneak behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street and locate an unmarked elevator that transports you to a subterranean passage filled with rusty machinery, a collection of graffiti and iron gates that limit your exploration to areas deemed earthquake-safe.