Skywalker Village


[Image: Tsovkra-1 via Google Maps].

“Flanked by the Caucasus Mountains on the highest plateau in Dagestan,” Kate Sutton wrote for the February issue of Artforum, “the village of Tsovkra-1 has parlayed the perils of its topography into a peculiar claim to fame: that every able-bodied member of its roughly four-hundred-person population can walk a tightrope. While locals say that this skill was first developed simply as a way to traverse the region’s slopes and crevices, tightrope walking is now considered an integral part of the republic’s cultural heritage.”

It’s like a deleted scene from, or an alternative version of, Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees, this village with such a precarious natural and geological setting that everyone becomes an acrobat.

The origins of the town’s peculiar talents are disputed. According to The Week, it might have been all about love: “While no one in Tsovkra-1 knows exactly how the tradition began, the most popular story is that more than 100 years ago, the village’s young men tired of trekking across the valleys that separated them from their female love interests in a neighboring community. So the men strung up a rope between the mountains and, after first pulling themselves across, eventually began to walk the rope, displaying their prowess for their waiting admirers.”

I would love to know the extent to which this has simply been overblown by curious journalists, especially as the only consistent takeaway from coverage of the town is that no one seems to know where the tightrope skills came from—although “all agree that it happened more than 200 years ago” and all seem to agree that Tsovkra-1’s acrobatics are on the verge of disappearing.

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).

The Peterborough Tunnels

A weird old story I came across in my bookmarks this morning tells a tale of tunnels under the town of Peterborough, England.

[Image: Gates in Holywell, Peterborough; photo by Rowland Hobson, courtesy of Peterborough Today].

The local newspaper, Peterborough Today, refers to a woman described simply as “a grandmother” who claims “that she crawled through a tunnel under Peterborough Cathedral as a schoolgirl.” That experience—organized as a school trip, of all things—was “terrifying”; in fact, it was “so scary that it gave her nightmares for weeks afterwards.”

About 25 of us went down into the tunnel, one at a time; none of the teachers came in. It was pitch black, had a stone floor and was about two feet high and three feet wide. We crawled along on our hands on knees. The girl in front of me stopped and started screaming, she was so scared. The tunnel started in the Cathedral and ended there too; we were down there for what seemed like ages. When I eventually got home I was in tears. Afterwards I had horrible nightmares for weeks about being buried alive underneath the Cathedral.

What’s fascinating about the story, though, is the fact that not everyone even agrees that these tunnels exist. A “city historian” quoted in the same article says that, while “there are small tunnels under the Cathedral,” they are most likely not tunnels at all, but simply “the ruins of foundations from earlier churches on the site, dating from Saxon times.” The girls would thus have been crawling around amongst the foundations of ruined churches, lost buildings that long predated the cathedral above them.

But local legends insist that the tunnels—or, perhaps, just one very large tunnel—might, in fact, be real. To this end, an amateur archaeologist named Jay Beecher, who works in a local bank by day, has “been intrigued by the legend of the tunnel ever since he was a young boy when he was regaled with tales that had been passed down the generations of a mysterious passageway under the city.” This “mysterious passageway under the city” would be nearly 800 years old, by his reckoning, and more than a mile in length. “Medieval monks may have used the tunnel as a safe route to visit a sacred spring at Holywell to bathe in its healing waters,” we read.

Although Beecher has found indications of the tunnel on city maps, not everyone is convinced, claiming the whole thing is just “folklore.” But it is oddly ubiquitous folklore. One former resident of town who contacted the newspaper “claimed that a series of tunnels ran between Peterborough and Thorney via a secret underground chapel.” Another “said that he recalled seeing part of a tunnel in the cellar at a home in Norfolk Street, Peterborough,” as if the tunnel flashes in and out of existence around town, from basement to basement, church cellar to pub storage room, more a portal or instance gate than an actual part of the built environment. And then, of course, there is the surreal childhood memory—or nightmare—recounted by the “grandmother” quoted above who once crawled beneath the town church with 25 of her schoolmates, worried that they’d all be buried alive in the center of town (surely the narrative premise of a childhood anxiety dream if there ever was one).

No word yet if Beecher has found his archaeological evidence, but the fact that this particular spatial feature makes an appearance in the dreams, memories, or confused geographic fantasies of the people who live there—as if their town can only be complete given this subterranean underside, a buried twin lost beneath churches—is in and of itself remarkable.

(If this interests you—or even if it doesn’t—take a quick look at BLDGBLOG’s tour through the tunnels and sand mines of Nottingham, or stop by this older post on the “undiscovered bedrooms of Manhattan“).

City Laid Out Like Lizard

[Image: View larger].

Last week, Josh Williams, formerly of Curbed LA, emailed with an amazing link to an article, reportedly published back in 1934 by the L.A. Times, about a race of “lizard people” who once lived beneath the city.

“Did strange people live under site of Los Angeles 5000 years ago?” the article asks, supplying a bizarre treasure map through the city’s undersides in the process.

[Image: View larger].

Although you can read the article in full through these links, I wanted to give you a taste of the story’s strange mix of gonzo archaeology, Poltergeist-like pre-Columbian cultural anxiety, and start-up geophysical investigation squad:

So firmly does [a “geophysical mining engineer” named G. Warren Shufelt] believe that a maze of catacombs and priceless golden tablets are to be found beneath downtown Los Angeles that the engineer and his aides have already driven a shaft 250 feet into the ground, the mouth of the shaft behind on the the old Banning property on North Hill Street overlooking Sunset Boulevard, Spring Street and North Broadway.
And so convinced is the engineer of the infallibility of a radio X-ray perfected by him for detecting the presence of minerals and tunnels below the surface of the ground, an apparatus with which he says he has traced a pattern of catacombs and vaults forming the lost city, that he plans to continue sending his shaft downward until he has reached a depth of 1000 feet before discontinuing operations.

The article goes on to suggest that this ancient subterranean city was “laid out like [a] lizard”; we visit a Hopi “medicine lodge,” wherein geophysical secrets are told; there are lost gold hoards; and, all along, the engineer’s “radio X-ray” apparatus continues to detect inhabitable voids beneath the metropolis.

“I knew I was over a pattern of tunnels,” Shufelt is quoted, “and I had mapped out the course of the tunnels, the position of large rooms scattered along the tunnel route, as well as the position of the deposits of gold, but I couldn’t understand the meaning of it.”

Perhaps this is what we’d get if Steven Spielberg hired Mike Mignola to write the next installment of Indiana Jones.

(Thanks to Josh Williams, and to vokoban, who originally uploaded the scan. Vaguely related: The Hollow Hills and Mysterious Chinese Tunnels).

Mysterious Chinese Tunnels

[Image: The brick-arched entryway to a “mysterious Chinese tunnel” in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

72 years ago, a man named William Zimmerman sat down with a to tell an agent of the U.S. government to tell a story about “mysterious Chinese tunnels” beneath the Pacific Northwest. His interview was conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, and it can be read online in a series of typewritten documents hosted by the Library of Congress.

Zimmerman claims that “mysterious” tunnels honeycombed the ground beneath the city of Tacoma, Washington. These would soon become known as “Shanghai tunnels,” because city dwellers were allegedly kidnapped via these underground routes – which always led west to the city’s docks – only to be shipped off to Shanghai, an impossibly exotic urban world across the ocean. There, they’d be sold into slavery.

[Image: The cover page for one of many U.S. government documents called “Mysterious Chinese Tunnels“].

Subterranean space here clearly exists within an interesting overlap of projections: fantasies of race, exoticism, and a subconscious fear of the underworld all wrapped up into one narrative package. White Europeans had expanded west all the way to the Pacific Ocean – only to find themselves standing in a fog-covered marsh, on earthquake-prone ground, with a “mysterious” race of Chinese dock workers tunneling toward them through the earth, looking for victims… It’s like a geography purpose-built for H.P. Lovecraft: down in the foundations of your city is a mysterious network of rooms, excavated by another race, through which unidentified strangers move at night, conspiring to abduct you.

[Image: Another “mysterious Chinese tunnel” in the Pacific Northwest (via)].

In any case, because “construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad required large numbers of railroad laborers,” Zimmerman’s tale begins, “many Chinese coolies” had to be smuggled into the “rapidly growing city of Tacoma.” They “arrive[d] mysteriously,” he says, “smuggled in on ships, and even Indian canoes, from British Columbia.”

Several opium joints were known to be operating in Tacoma. And there was no question in the minds of many people that the narcotic was smuggled in through tunnels from their dens to cleverly hidden exits near the waterfront. They were also convinced that the tunnels were dug by Chinese, either as a personal enterprise or at the behest of white men of the underworld, as no white workmen would burrow the devious mole-like passageways and keep their labors secret.

Zimmerman adds that the Chinese “were forcibly expelled from Tacoma in 1885, but ever [sic] so often the story of the Chinese tunnels bobs up whenever workmen come across them in excavation work.”

[Image: Entries to Tacoma’s mysterious Chinese underworld? Photo by Stephen Cysewski (via)].

Meanwhile, the same year as Zimmerman’s interview – 1936 – a 39-year old man named V.W. Jenkins also sat down with a representative of the Federal Writers’ Project, and he had this story to tell:

In the spring of 1935 when the City Light Department was placing electric power conduits under ground, workmen digging a trench in the alley between Pacific Avenue and ‘A’ Street at a point about 75 feet south of 7th Street, just back of the State Hotel, crosscut an old tunnel about ten feet below the surface of the ground. This tunnel was about three feet wide by five feet high, and tended in a southwesterly direction under the State Hotel, and in the opposite direction southeasterly toward Commencement Bay. I entered the tunnel and walked about 40 or 50 feet in each direction from the opening which we had encountered. There it went under the hotel the tunnel dipped sharply to pass under the concrete footings of the rear wall, proving that the tunnel was dug after the hotel had been built. In the other direction the tunnel had a sharp turn to the left, and after several feet, a gradual curve to the right, so that it was again tending in the same direction as at the opening. About 50 feet from the opening on the Bay side the tunnel began to dip and in another ten feet began to decline very sharply so that it would have been necessary to use a rope to descend safely on the met slippery floor. The brow of the bluff overlooking the waterfront is but a short distance from this point, explaining the need for the rapid downward slope, although it is probable that farther on there is a turn, either right or left, and that the tunnel was dug at an easier grade before emerging at a lower level.

Jenkins then offers this bizarrely wonderful explanation for what else might have formed those tunnels:

Some persons contend that these openings found in the vicinity of Tacoma were caused by trees buried in the glacial age, and after decaying, left the openings in the glacial drift. If this is the true explanation for the tunnel I have described, then the tree that made it must have been a giant that grow such in the shape of a corkscrew.

Of course, there are also “Shanghai tunnels” beneath Portland, Oregon. “All along the Portland waterfront,” we read, “…’Shanghai Tunnels’ ran beneath the city, allowing a hidden world to exist. These ‘catacombs’ connected to the many saloons, brothels, gambling parlors, and opium dens, which drew great numbers of men and became ideal places for the shanghaiers to find their victims. The catacombs, which ‘snaked’ their way beneath the streets of what we now call Old Town, Skidmore Fountain, and Chinatown, helped to create an infamous history that became ‘cloaked’ in myth, superstition, and fear.”

The same website linked above describes the actual process of so-called Shanghai’ing:

The victims were held captive in small brick cells or makeshift wood and tin prisons until they were sold to the sea captains. A sea captain who needed additional men to fill his crew notified the shanghaiiers that he was ready to set sail in the early-morning hours, and would purchase the men for $50 to $55 a head. ‘Knock-out drops’ were then slipped into the confined victim’s food or water.
Unconscious, they were then taken through a network of tunnels that ‘snaked’ their way under the city all the way to the waterfront. They were placed aboard ships and didn’t awake until many hours later, after they had ‘crossed the bar’ into the Pacific Ocean. It took many of these men as long as two full voyages – that’s six years – to get back to Portland.

It all sounds like some prehistoric narrative of the afterlife – a shaman’s tale of a near-death experience: you’re blacked out and led through mysterious tunnels inside the earth, only to wake up surrounded by the oceanic, on your way to another world.

This site offers quite a lot of history of the Tacoma tunnels, and ten minutes of Googling will reveal at least a dozen blog posts and assorted minor newspaper articles about the phenomenon; but there’s something particularly intriguing about an official oral history, conducted by the U.S. government, in which tales of subterranean geography are revealed. The papers have the feel of a kind of national psychoanalysis, where each session takes the form of geographic speculation. More practically, such interviews are a fantastic premise for a short novel or film.

[Image: Photo by Michael Cook. “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

Briefly, though, I’m also reminded of BLDGBLOG’s interview with Michael Cook, an urban explorer based in Toronto, posted last summer.

Toward the end of that interview, I asked Cook “if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet” – some long-rumored underworld that might only be speculation. Cook replies:

I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.
You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

(With huge thanks to Alexis Madrigal, who sent me a link to the Tacoma tunnels last summer).