Downtown Los Angeles is famous for many things, including its unique vintage seediness. Once upon a time, when the entire country was forced to go dry (during the Prohibition era), Los Angeles was one of the rare places where the party never stopped. Despite the strict prohibition laws, the service underground tunnels of Los Angeles turned into a passageway to underground speakeasy bars with innocuous fronts above the surface.
Today, it seems like these tunnels have been long-forgotten and turned into an endless tapestry for graffiti artists but they still carry the memory of some other times that inspired many classic noir films and novels.
About The Underground Tunnels Of Los Angeles
Most of these tunnels are service tunnels but there’s a lot more underneath the city’s surface than just service tunnels. Some of these tunnels were used for all kinds of illegal things, including moving cash, smuggling booze, speakeasy bars, mafia encounters, mysterious murders, and more.
In addition to service tunnels and speakeasy bars, in this area, you’ll also find plenty of abandoned subway and equestrian tunnels. There are many legendary stories about these tunnels being used by the LAPD to transport prisoners, by bank security to move large amounts of cash, and by mobsters for storing bodies. Today, the tunnels are technically closed for the public but parts are still accessible.
In this post, we’ll give you a sneak-peak of the underground tunnels of Los Angeles and show you more about this seemingly forgotten (most of them partially because they were never properly mapped) part of L.A.’s history.
As we mentioned, visiting most of the city’s underground is not possible; the western portal is permanently sealed off but the eastern portal (Red Line tunnels) is not and the city is working on making this part of the city’s underground accessible to the public. However, the abandoned Red Line tunnels aren’t the only surviving passage that is accessible to the public (more about this below)…
At a glance, with its wide, modern roads, Los Angles looks like a city of freeways but that was not always the case. A hundred years ago, most of these freeways were not here, the city was congested with traffic, and the tunnels underneath were built to solve the city’s growing transportation problems. Construction of the underground tunnels started in the early 19th century. The first tunnels were built underneath the Bunker and Hill Street Area but in the following years, the network of underground tunnels in Los Angeles increased greatly.
However, during the 1920s and 1930s, the city of Los Angeles got plenty of new, modern roads, making the years of use of the tunnels (at least for their intended purpose) surprisingly short-lived. Because of this, the subway that was built in 1925 and cost more than 4 million dollars was retired in favor of above-ground buses.
The underground tunnels didn’t really serve their initial purpose (easing the city’s notorious traffic at the time) but when Prohibition came to power, people quickly found alternative ways to use these underground passages, which brings us to our next point…
What Were The Tunnels Used For?
On the 17th of January, 1920, the Volstead Act officially banned entirely the manufacturing, transportation, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the United States. However, in Los Angeles, the Prohibition proved very difficult to enforce. Around this time, inside the old underground tunnels of Los Angeles, speakeasy bars started popping out like mushrooms.
With nowhere else to go for a drink, people turned to speakeasies. Some of the most popular bars in Los Angeles during this era were King Eddy Saloon, Cole’s Original French Dip, and Edison’s. To enter, you’d need to know a password, and these establishments were also frequently visited by mobsters.
A part of the reason why speakeasies were allowed to run operations smoothly lied in the city’s corruption at the time. Local politicians and their cronies were involved in the alcohol business, and Mayor Cryer’s office even ran the booze supply. In the 1930s, the Prohibition was eventually repealed and with other bars opening everywhere around the city, the underground tunnels of Los Angeles started losing their popularity and slowly fading into history…
Are The Tunnels Open To The Public?
Officially, the underground tunnels of Los Angeles are closed to the public but there are still a few passages where you can enter and take a sneak-peak. Many people use these passages on a daily basis as shortcuts between buildings. My guess is that most of them don’t even know about the tunnels’ historic significance. In addition to this, there are a few tour operators that offer tours of the underground tunnels (to be specific, the part of it that’s not permanently sealed).
Should You Visit?
If you’re a fan of US history, local folklore, you like visiting unusual places or want to discover some of the best hidden gems in Los Angeles, you’ll surely love the underground tunnels of Los Angeles. Just note that no one maintains these abandoned tunnels and the terrain can get rough in some areas, so wear appropriate waterproof shoes.
Most Popular Parts Of The Underground Tunnels
The most famous underground tunnels in Los Angeles are without a doubt, the notorious prohibition tunnels but there were also some other noteworthy landmarks underground too. Here are some of the most famous parts of L.A.’s underground portion.
King Eddy Saloon
Address: 131 E 5th St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
King Eddy Saloon was one of the liveliest establishments in the early 1900s (1906 to be exact) and to this day, one of the most famous speakeasies in the City of Angels. The bar was located under a newly-opened piano store owned by local legend King Eddy. Fortunately for him, no local officials thought of investigating his sudden interest in pianos and allowed this to be one of the most popular Prohibition-era bars in L.A.
Today, the piano store has been turned into a bar once again while the bar’s basement still remains a part of the tunnel system but its glory days are obviously way behind it. Inside the basement, you’ll find nothing but crumbling bricks, graffiti murals, and a bad smell…
Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet
Address: 118 E 6th St. Los Angeles, CA 90014
Cole’s was another popular establishment of the Prohibition era. In addition to being the owner of a popular bar, Cole was also the inventor of the French Dip Sandwich. This bar was opened two years after King Eddy Saloon (1908) on the bottom floor of the Pacific Electric building (at the time, LA’s tallest skyscraper). The owner also operated the first check-cashing service from a restaurant in Los Angeles. His bar was also frequently visited by gangsters like Mickey Cohen.
Address: 108 W 2nd St #101 Los Angeles, CA 90012
Edison is another former speakeasy bar that was located in the sub-basement of the historic Higgins Building that contained the city’s first privately-owned power plant. After the Prohibition era, the underground bar was closed and interestingly, the building spent years neglected and underwater before being bought by entrepreneurs Andrew Mejeran and Marc Smith who re-opened Edison’s in the basement. However, instead of a speakeasy, this Edison was a post-industrial steampunk nightclub.
Enjoying this post? Then you may also like our guide to the storybook houses of LA.
The Millennium Biltmore Hotel
Address: 506 S Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90071
The Millennium Biltmore Hotel housed the famous Gold Room that was a popular Prohibition-era speakeasy/nightclub. The entrance was through a hidden door that led onto Olive Street and helped revelers to avoid the police and the paparazzi. This hidden door is still there and today, it leads to a room that has a wooden countertop and coat hooks but the exit to Olive Street has been sealed.
Bunker Hill Transit Tunnel
Address: 2nd Street Tunnel, Downtown L.A.
The Bunker Hill Tunnel is one of the most controversial projects in Los Angeles. Initially, it was planned for this transit tunnel to connect several different sections of the city’s metro but the project has been re-started and stopped several times throughout history. However, despite this, there are several creep-tastic passageways that are accessible for passersby and are definitely worth visiting.
Note: at the moment, the tunnel is under construction and it’s finally expected to link the Blue, Gold, and Expo lines, allowing for a one-seat ride from Azusa to Long Beach by the end of 2021.
Civic Center Tunnels
Downtown L.A. has several tunnels for cars between Second and Third Street but there are also a few underground passages that are not as known and well-traveled. These pedestrian tunnels are located below the County Hall of Records and the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. The passages are mostly used by officials but in the past, it was also used for moving defendants between the court and the jail. One of the prisoners who were taken from this tunnel to his trial was Mickey Cohen (the frequent visitor of Cole’s speakeasy that we mentioned above).
Where Is The Entrance To The Underground Tunnels?
The easiest way to access the underground tunnels of Los Angeles is through the elevator behind the Hall of Records located at 320 West Temple Street or the elevator at 222 North Hill Street. Pay close attention when passing by because you can easily miss the elevator. Once you get underground, you’ll see an endless stretch of pipes, railway tracks, and graffiti entirely covering the walls- the perfect setting for a scene of an apocalyptic movie.
To get to the tunnels, you’ll have to press “2”. Once the elevator opens, step out into the hallway and ride the escalator up one level and you’ll finally access the cold, labyrinthine underground tunnels of Los Angeles. Now, you’re free to explore this not-so-famous part of Los Angeles- just be careful and track your steps because you can easily get lost down there!
Note: Read the hours and rules posted outside of the elevator before heading down and if you see another person, don’t freak out; it’s probably an employee using the tunnels to get to his workplace. Also, note that some of the tunnels might be closed off because they’re frequently used for shooting movies.
If you need more help finding the underground tunnels of Los Angeles, here’s some additional information, including the coordinates and approximate elevation.
USGS Map Area: Downtown
Coordinates: 34.055616°N, -118.244767°W
Approximate Elevation: 280 feet (86 meters)
Nearby Places To Visit
If you’re in the area and are wondering what are some interesting places to visit near the entrances of the underground tunnels, here are a few suggestions…
Grand Central Market
Japanese Village Plaza Mall
Los Angeles Center Studios
Angels Flight Railway
Joel Bloom Square
Ronald Reagan State Building
City Hall Park Center
Tours Of Underground Tunnels In Los Angeles
Because of the fact that the tunnels are technically closed to the public, there aren’t too many tour operators offering tours for this part of the city but in this section, we’ll give you a few suggestions if you’re looking to join a group tour.
Some tours like Cartwheel are custom and to make a reservation, you’d have to get in touch in advance. Other tours are publicly available and can be booked online. Here are a few of my favorites:
This one covers the main speakeasy bars, their history, and to round up the tour, you get a complimentary drink.
This tour focuses on some of the most popular speakeasies in the Hollywood area. Here, you can also learn about the retreats and hangouts of old Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe but also about the darker part of the tunnels’ history.
This tour will allow you to discover some hidden speakeasies and show you how life was like in Downtown L.A. more than 100 years ago. What I love about this tour is that it will show you the rich history of Los Angeles and the city’s adaptable spirit that enabled the city to transform into one of the world’s greatest metropolises today. The tour is guided by a local guide who knows the history of the underground tunnels very well and you will definitely learn some new, not-so-known historic facts about L.A.
Last but not least, we have the Cartwheel tour. As I said, their tours are custom and upon request-only but this tour will guide you through the underground and share some of the tunnels’ most notorious secrets. All guests are required to sign forms stating that they’ll never reveal the location of the speakeasies shown in this tour because many of them are connected to businesses that are still operational as well as private homes.
A Few Final Words
The underground tunnels of Los Angeles provide a small taste of the city’s rich history, not unburdened by modern technology and innovations. Taking an excursion underneath the city can be a creepy, but also exhilarating experience that will give you a glimpse of life in L.A. in the early 20th century and uncover some of the city’s long-forgotten treasures.
Did you ever visit the underground tunnels of Los Angeles? Did our post inspire you to explore the underground of L.A.? Do you think there are some other interesting facts about the underground tunnels we forgot to mention? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!
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