Theres a rumor swirling around Durango, and historian Duane Smith has tried to correct it too many times to count.
Though the details differ from person to person, the story goes that theres a system of tunnels underneath Main Avenue that was used by women of ill repute and their male customers to travel between brothels and bars while remaining hidden from the public and protected from cold winter weather.
The tunnels exist, but the rest of the story is farce, Smith said, according to the more than 150 interviews he has done with Durango old-timers about various aspects of the towns history. Physically and logistically, the details dont match with what the Fort Lewis College history professor knows about Durangos history.
The rumor persists because people love a great story, Smith said.
You cant kill it, he said. Its one of those rumors people want to believe because its romantic and exciting.
Various tunnels were constructed in parts and pieces along the west side of Main Avenue beginning in the 1880s, Smith said. They are concentrated under businesses along the 900 and 1000 blocks of Main Avenue and, according to his sources, were used by those businesses to store coal in the basement, where most furnaces were located, without the hassle of hauling it through their stores.
Coal trucks would drive down Main and dump coal down a sidewalk chute that funneled into the storage space, Smith said. Because they werent used for travel, the tunnels never connected to form a unified system.
To those who maintain the tunnels under Main Avenue were used by scantily clad women and well-respected businessmen walking between bars and brothels, Smith points to geography. Durangos two red-light districts were on the east edge of the Animas River near River City Hall and near the train depot. The tunnels never extended to that district, Smith said. Besides, most men werent afraid to enter the saloons on Main Avenue, while women remained inconspicuous by entering through the buildings back doors, he said.
Why would you want to walk underground? he asked. Its damp, cold and dirty.
Robert McDaniel, former director of the Animas Museum, agreed that the tunnels probably were used for a utilitarian purpose like storing coal. More accurately, they should be called below-ground storage spaces or basement rooms rather than tunnels, McDaniel said. He got questions about the tunnels supposedly storied past once or twice a year when he worked at the museum.
Even if you publish it in the paper, I dont think that myth will ever die, he said.
Whatever their purpose, Durango Fire & Rescue Authority spokesman Dave Imming said the agency is well aware of the hollow spaces beneath the sidewalks downtown. When they need to extend a ladder to a building on Main Avenue, the trucks cant extend their stabilizing equipment onto the sidewalks for fear of punching through, Imming said.
Smith said most of the tunnels have been walled up because the businesses dont want people crawling around under there.
Chris Lile, co-owner of El Rancho Tavern at 10th Street and Main Avenue said business owners are hesitant to tell stories about the tunnels because of the risk of break-ins. One part of the tunnel system is intact underneath the El Rancho building and is used for storing and transporting merchandise into the bar.
Some business owners on Main Avenue said stories about people using the tunnels to travel between establishments were the only ones they had ever known.
It was easier for the ladies to get around underground, said Bill Cook, owner of The Jewelry Works, at 965 Main Ave., as he recounted his version of the tale.
Lile didnt discount the possibility. The basement of El Rancho has always been used for different activities, and after cleaning one day the owners found coins on the floor from 1890, he said. But the tunnels were used so long ago, that it is anyones guess what the real story was.
Only your imagination can speculate, he said. Anything could have happened.
When it comes to other tunnels around the state, the scandalous stories are closer to the truth. A tunnel still exists underneath the sidewalk in front of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton. Hotel owner George Foster said the tunnel once connected the Grand Imperial to the bar across Greene Street, now the Citizens State Bank of Ouray. Men would walk through the tunnel to the bar that had a back door that opened up to Blaire Street where brothels were legal, Foster said.
The remains of another tunnel exist in downtown Denver that had similar purposes, said Tom Noel, a history professor at the University of Colorado Denver. The tunnel connects the historic Brown Palace Hotel and the building that formerly housed one of the citys most famous brothels. It is rumored that other similar tunnels connected businesses underneath the city, but Noel said he has yet to find evidence of them.
Smith, meanwhile, has embraced the rumors of Durangos tunnels as an example of the inherent quirks of studying the past.
Ill let people have their own opinion, Smith said. The fun of history is that sources contradict each other so you never know what went on.