People who’ve lived in Billings long enough have heard the story about a latticework of underground tunnels that once hosted opium dens, drug lords, prostitutes and more.
Some people believe it and some don’t. Either way, they’re right.
There are tunnels. They are under parts of downtown Billings. But they aren’t the deep, damp, cement lures that transport able-bodies from the Lincoln Center to the Babcock and across to the Moss Mansion. There isn’t any opium, but there are underground pipes that once heated the city’s center.
There’s also Cold War-era sanitation kits and shelter supplies from a time when communities thought nuclear war was inevitable. A crawlspace beneath the Lincoln Center is full of them.
That’s what Jeff Skovgaard finds most interesting. He’s been the head custodian at the Lincoln Center for School District 2 since 2008. Every once in awhile he walks the length of the maze to make sure there aren’t any leaks in the pipes that cover the low-hanging ceilings. The keys on his key ring resemble what one would imagine in a movie. They hang heavy in his hand as he effortlessly selects the key to unlock the door to what’s left of Billings' underground tunnels.
The earliest reference of the tunnels dates back to 1907 when Billings Mutual Heating Company proposed to construct and operate a central heating plant for the city.
The plant was built on North 29th Street and piped hot water underground to businesses along the street down to Minnesota Avenue. The pipes extended to reach businesses east on 26th Street, west on 32nd to Montana Avenue and First, Second and Third Avenue North.
According to Billings author and former librarian Karen Stevens, the heating plant was the largest of its kind west of the Missouri River. In her book, "Billings A to Z," the plant had more than three miles of water mains that heated more than 50 businesses. Some included the Stapleton Building, The Northern Hotel, Billings Public Library, the Lincoln Center, the Babcock Building and city hall.
The plant went out of business in 1937.
The pipes leaked terribly, she said. From then on many access points to the pipes collapsed, were filled in or became inaccessible.
Even after the plant went out of business people still talked about the tunnels.
For Stevens, it was the most frequently asked question at the reference desk during her 22 years working at the Billings Public Library, then Parmly Billings Library.
People are fascinated by tunnels, she said.
Stevens said she believes there’s something that draws people to them.
Even today, Billings' historians and downtown building owners continue to get calls inquiring about one of the city’s oldest urban legends.
Western Heritage Center Executive Director Kevin Kooistra said he believes the tunnels have been talked about well into the '30s and '40s.
In 1943, a Billings Gazette subhead reads “No Tunnel System” in bold font. The rest of the article states the following, “China Alley (once located on Southside) is not and never was honeycombed with tunnels, although it did at one time have some interesting basements, with more doors than usual and some complex arrangements of locks.”
“It’s been a question for over 100 years,” said Kooistra. “It’s a big deal.”
Kooistra said people call the Western Heritage Center about the tunnels once or twice a month. Community historian Elisabeth DeGranier received a call from the Department of Transportation asking about the tunnels in January.
After 9/11, the FBI contacted Kooistra asking about tunnels under the train tracks near Minnesota Avenue.
“The rumor of this network of tunnels has reached federal agencies,” said Kooistra. “From all the years I’ve heard this story, there’s never any solid evidence.”
So far, all the evidence he’s seen is from when he went under the Lincoln Center.
“I’ve seen it,” Kooistra said. “It’s impressive, spooky and has evidence of a functional past.”
Kooistra said he believes there is a difference between the functional tunnel system and the idea of an active corridor transporting people from one place to another.
But when people ask he doesn’t immediately dismiss the idea of the tunnels.
“It’s fun because we are encouraging people to do research,” Kooistra said. “We love the idea of people exploring.”
Kooistra said he and his staff are always waiting and open for people to bring in any evidence they find.