On Sundays, when many businesses in downtown Astoria were closed, half a dozen children slipped underground.
It was the 1960s, and most merchants had blocked the entrances to tunnels under the streets and buildings. But the children were small enough. They squeezed into places no one thought they could. They crept up into stores, helped themselves to candy, moved cars around in an auto dealership’s basement.
Later, after the police caught them and their parents punished them, the children learned they weren’t the first “mole gang” — older siblings and prior generations had found and explored the tunnels — and they weren’t the last.
Thousands of feet of tunnels and similar structures called “chairwalls” stretch under downtown. They date from 1915 and 1923 and are the reason the city can’t just simply fill the hole known as Heritage Square near the Garden of Surging Waves on Duane Street. The walls weren’t built to carry that kind of load against their sides.
The chairwalls reshaped Astoria’s waterfront, raising buildings and streets above a tidal flat. Veined with power and communication lines, they support streets and are reminders of how the city rebuilt itself after a massive fire leveled downtown in 1922.
Up above, sidewalks and sidewalk supports are beginning to show their age. Below, the chairwalls are in relatively good condition for now, but the city is looking at how it will sustain these important structures into the future.
If you could slice a street in half and view the bones of a chairwall, the name would immediately become clear. In a cross-section view, the structure looks like a chair that begins directly below sidewalk curbs. Sand fills the empty space between opposing chairwalls.
For each chairwall section, a wall drops down underground — the back of the chair. Another section extends out. This is the seat of the chair. Then another wall drops from the end of this seat. The legs of the chair.
Climb into the tunnels with Public Works Superintendent Ken Nelson and he will emphasize the danger. These are small, enclosed spaces. The air could turn dangerous quickly. At any time, anyone could flush anything into the sewer system. If the ground started to shake, it’s the last place he would want to be. When he goes underground, he keeps a small gas detector on hand and is in constant communication with another Public Works employee outside.
On a recent afternoon, Nelson took Astoria city councilors Cindy Price and Bruce Jones down into a section of tunnel near City Hall, between two chairwall segments. Gravel crunched underfoot as they ducked under a low, looping wire. Their hard hats knocked gently against the top of the tunnel. Their flashlights illuminated a crumpled can of organic grape soda.
At a work session last month, councilors learned that the city is in the middle of talks with the Oregon Department of Transportation for regular inspection services that will eventually inform a strategy for shared responsibility of chairwall maintenance.
Public Works staff hope the structures will be included on the National Bridge Inventory, which could make them eligible for outside funding sources — an important point since the cost of repairing and, inevitably, replacing the chairwalls will be well beyond what the city can afford.
“(There’s) not even a ballpark,” City Engineer Jeff Harrington said of the costs of future replacement work. “It’s going to be millions of dollars.”
Before the chairwalls and tunnels were built, the streets and buildings downtown were raised above a tidal flat and the tides by wooden beams and driven timber pilings. Most of the buildings were timber as well.
On Dec. 7, 1922, a massive fire swept through the city. Thanks to Astoria’s wooden underbelly, the fire was able to spread quickly, almost out of sight until it soared into the buildings above. Buildings were blown up with dynamite in an attempt to check the flames.
“This is not Seattle,” said local historian and preservationist John Goodenberger, referencing that city’s famous underground network of passageways and basements that contain storefronts and sidewalks, remnants from when Seattle rebuilt after its own disastrous fire in 1889.
“Yes, we did raise the downtown, but it’s not like you’re going and seeing former storefronts and rooms,” Goodenberger said. “You’re seeing a structural system.”
Homeless people have since used these tunnels as hideouts and bedrooms. Even further back, the daughter of A.G. Spexarth, a prominent Astoria businessman in the late 1800s and early 1900s, remembered a trip she took with her father through the underground. Spexarth dipped under the sidewalk to adjust a client’s sewing machine, she wrote. Father and daughter walked past cramped, underground rooms where Chinese families lived. The stale air smelled of incense, dried fish and sewage.
Woven in with other myths about the tunnels — giant spiders, giant rats, a forbidden and hidden shadow city — is the belief that people used them to shanghai sailors. Though shanghaiing was certainly an Astoria legacy, local historians say there is no reason to think the tunnels were ever used for this purpose.
Today, the city’s underground mostly consists of narrow, confined areas, pipelines, spiderwebs and litter. There’s some rude graffiti, a quick sprawl of words etched in quick sweeps of a spray paint can. Entrances are sealed off behind fences, gates and walls.
Goodenberger says it’s helpful to think about the era when the chairwalls and tunnels were built.
“After the fire, people were, rightly, afraid of another fire,” he said.
The structures, built amid setbacks and squabbles, allowed pipelines to be stowed safely underground in a sort of vault and established a new foundation.
“All these ethnic groups were colliding,” Goodenberger said. “And we had to come together and rebuild downtown under the greatest of odds.”