Miss Fanny – a gangster’s moll of a lady – is speaking in a drawl, welcoming us to the Tunnels of Moose Jaw’s The Chicago Connection tour in Saskatchewan, Canada.
She’s an actor, in character, and our guide, wearing a short, 1920s style dress and stiletto heels. She says she knows a guy called Big Al – Al Capone – and assumes myself and the rest of the tour group must be here to set up a deal involving illicit booze.
Today Moose Jaw is a quiet city with broad, well-maintained streets and smiling shop assistants. It makes a clean, wholesome impression.
Yet a little under a century ago it was renowned as the sin capital of the prairies. In the 1920s it was even nicknamed ‘Little Chicago’ thanks to the lawless behaviour centred on River Street, a hub for bootlegging, gambling, opium smoking and prostitution.
We learn from Miss Fanny that the chief of police in 1929, Walter P. Johnson, was notoriously corrupt. It’s said that American gangsters turned up in Moose Jaw to evade the law south of the border.
The 18th Amendment to the constitution of the United States of America, introduced by Congress in December 1917, resulted in a nationwide prohibition of “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” between 1920 and 1933. Demand, however, did not dry up. People able to supply alcoholic beverages during Prohibition could become rich. Al Capone’s empire was reputedly worth $100 million a year.
Booze was transported south from Moose Jaw into the USA via the Soo Line. Saskatchewan had experimented with prohibition of alcohol between 1917 and 1924 but enforcement of the law proved impractical.
We climb a flight of steps. I turn to Finn, one of my travelling companions, to ask if Canadian tunnels have a different definition to those elsewhere; shouldn’t we be heading underground rather than upstairs?
Miss Fanny shoots me a glance – maybe I shouldn’t have been talking out of turn if she has mob connections – and pulls back the door to a high-ceilinged room with a long bar. She throws her feather boa over her shoulder, tosses back her head dramatically and welcomes us into a 1920s-style speakeasy. She bids us to sit at one of the tables and sets the scene, with talk of hush money, corruption and illicit deals. Jaunty Ragtime style piano music plays in what turns out to be a former Masonic meeting hall.
She then leads us into an office, as might have been used by Al Capone, complete with a chair with a bulletproof back. There’s strong anecdotal evidence that Capone visited Moose Jaw. A 13-year-old local lad, Ken Turner, told of delivering newspapers to him. A local doctor, Dr Hugh Young, who worked in the city from 1914 to 1968, recalled operating on Capone – without anaesthetic – to relieve pressure on tonsils inflamed by quinsy.
With talk of an imminent raid by revenue men Miss Fanny hurries us away. Seeking refuge, we head down into the tunnels proper via a secret passage behind the office fireplace.
Once downstairs we visit the operation’s underground communications hub, complete with a Bakelite telephone and a manual switchboard. Miss Fanny then raps on a door in the brick-walled corridor and her colleague Gus peeks at us suspiciously from behind a metal grill. We exchange a ‘secret signal’ then enter.
With slicked back hair, trousers held up by braces and a trilby, Gus has a manner reminiscent of James Cagney. He leads us into a store room where weapons are held, including a tommy gun with a barrel magazine.
He tells us how alcohol was distilled within the tunnels then stored before being sent southward. Surely, though, the smell would have wafted out and warned anyone with a sense of smell of the operations below ground?
We pass through a card room, set up for illicit gambling, before the 45-minute long dramatised tour comes to an end with a shootout.
The ticket office for the Tunnels of Moose Jaw are at 18 Main Street North in downtown Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. The ticket office also hosts a souvenir shop and a gallery of framed black and white photos with scenes from early 20th century Moose Jaw.
The tunnels are open throughout the year and offer two separate guided tours to visitors, led by actors playing roles. The Chicago Connection is about Moose Jaw’s links with American gangsters during the era of prohibition and bootlegging. The Passage to Fortune tells the story of early Chinese migrants to Canada.
Moose Jaw is approximately 45 minutes by car from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan. Air Canada flies between Regina and London Heathrow via Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.