A hundred or so years ago, Moose Jaw was a booming prairie metropolis with a dubious reputation. Gambling, drinking and loose women were everywhere. These illegal activities thrived thanks to a network of tunnels beneath the streets of the city that served the needs of gangsters, madams and bootleggers. At least that’s what some people in Moose Jaw say. Others say that these tunnels never existed except as rumour, and the rumours are greatly exaggerated to create a tourism friendly façade for this Saskatchewan city. 

Allegedly, at the turn of the last century, a network of tunnels running under the city of Moose Jaw was said to have been built by Chinese migrants. The hard working migrants were welcomed to Canada to build the railroad, but once the railroad was built fear of a yellow invasion gripped Western Canada. This led to Ottawa imposing a $500 head tax on the Chinese, which was supposed to force them to return to famine ravished China. To hide from the head tax, the Chinese built these tunnels then lived underground and worked in the various businesses the tunnels connected with. That’s one half of the debatable history of the tunnels, the other half concerns gangsters. 

Allegedly, in the roaring twenties, the tunnels became the underground den of the era’s most notorious gangsters, Al Capone, and his scary second in command, ‘Diamond’ Jim Brady.

While prohibition was still in full swing down south, it had been lifted in Canada and there was a ready supply of liquor available in Saskatchewan. With the Soo line railway going directly from Moose Jaw to Chicago, there was quite the trade in bootlegged liquor to be managed by the gangsters. The breadth of bootlegging activity happening in Moose Jaw earned the city the moniker of “Little Chicago,” which was not a label that all the citizens were proud of. 

Candace Kirkpatrick, Tourism Moose Jaw’s Executive Director says that although there isn’t actually evidence that Capone did spend time in the city, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that he might have. “During prohibition, farmers south of the city talked about the bullet-proofed cars they’d see doing booze runs and a few old-timers used to tell stories of their encounters with Capone,” she says. 

These stories about Capone and Brady’s presence in Moose Jaw, may not count as hard evidence certainly help to flesh out the legend. There’s the daughter of the barber who claims her dad did Capone’s grooming in the tunnels, the grand-daughter of the doctor who allegedly treated Capone at one of the downtown hotels and was given a hundred-dollar bill and a warning not to tell for his troubles, and the men who say they worked as runners for Capone while still wearing their short pants. Given the kind of activities that were going on in Moose Jaw, it doesn’t seem absurd that Capone could have been a regular visitor to the city. “We had a colorful history, that’s for sure,” says Kirkpatrick.

The colouful history is one shared by many prairie towns of the time, where it still truly was the Wild West. The populations were mainly male, and consequently the oldest profession in the world thrived along the city’s River Street. The most famous Moose Jaw madam was one Rosie Dale, who was kicked out of Moose Jaw itself (supposedly for refusing to pay the police for their protection) set up on the edge of town near what is now known as Rosedale (Knight has her suspicions that the area named Rosedale in reference to the shady lady’s place of business.)

Historian James H. Grey, in his book Red Lights on the Prairies describes how Ms Dale invented the U-Drive system, where horses were trained to take clients directly to her place of business with no driver- this was allegedly necessary due to a lack of available drivers in the area.

Whether Capone really visited or not, there are tunnels, or at least parts of them still leading from the basements of several buildings downtown. Back in 1985, a manhole collapsed over Main Street and exposed a large brick-lined cavern that once more set tongues wagging about the tunnels of Moose Jaw. City workers could find no official explanation for the newly exposed area.

“We did in fact have tunnels,” says Kirkpatrick, “And over the years they would have been used for many things. During prohibition they were making and storing booze everywhere, including the basements of churches, so why wouldn’t the tunnels under Moose Jaw have been used for that too?”

Local historian Leith Knight has her doubts about the legends being perpetuated in Moose Jaw. “The Chinese in Moose Jaw weren’t hiding underground, they were prominent members of society,” she says, “They had businesses and their children were christened at the church.” 

Knight also says that the whole Al Capone thing was started in 1970 by a couple of reporters from the Moose Jaw Times Herald who were in the beer parlor one night thinking up ways to drum up tourist business. “Before that you never heard of Al Capone being in Moose Jaw, it was never mentioned. Why would he come to lose himself in such a small town when he had all those big American cities to choose from?”

(Kirkpatrick says that because the police chief of the time, Walter P. Johnson, was so corrupt and the fact that the train line ran straight here from Chicago, Moose Jaw was probably as good a place to lay low as any.)

Leith says that Moose Jaw was just like any other prairie town of the time, no more or less wild. She believes that the bit of tunnels that can still be seen in some of the basements of buildings downtown were actually storage areas or corridors for building caretakers to maintain furnaces and things. “All these legends have grown up and become embellished over the years,” she says, “But if they bring people to Moose Jaw, that’s a good thing.”

The embellished dirty secrets of Moose Jaw’s history have certainly boosted tourism in the area.  The fascination around the legend of the tunnels led to the creation of a tourist attraction appropriately called, The Tunnels of Moose Jaw, which offers theatrical guided tours through a maze of purpose built tunnels filled with historical artifacts, photographs and dramatizations of the city’s racy past.