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MOOSE JAW, 70km west of Regina, was founded as a railway depot in 1882. Its name comes from a Cree word for “warm place by the river”, although some believe it was named for the repairs done to a cartwheel by an early pioneer using a moose’s jawbone.
The city achieved notoriety during US Prohibition in the 1920s, when liquor was smuggled south by car or train to Chicago. For most locals this period of bootleggers, gangsters, gamblers and “boozoriums” (liquor warehouses) was not a happy one, and for years various schemes to attract tourists by developing the “Roaring Twenties” theme met with considerable opposition from the population who actually experienced them. Despite this, the Tunnels of Moose Jaw became the most interesting attraction in town.
Today, the city is a quiet sort of place with plenty of reminders of its 1920s heyday – or nadir, depending on your perspective – which amply reward pulling off the Trans-Canada.
A network of tunnels runs underneath River Street from the basements of some of the city’s oldest buildings. No one knows who built these passageways – or why – but what is known is that Chinese railway workers extended and used them in the early 1900s, hoping to escape the $500 “head tax”, a measure designed to force them to return to famine-stricken China after their railway work was done. Later, during Prohibition, Chicago gangsters used the tunnels to negotiate deals for Canada’s liquor supplies and to hide out in when things got too hot in Chicago.
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw tells this history in two entertaining fifty-minute theatrical tours: the Chicago Connection tour is a light-hearted look at the capers of Al Capone’s men, complete with speakeasy, police bust and slimy Chief of Police. The more serious Passage to Fortune tour tells the horrific Chinese story, with re-creations of a laundry, sweatshops, a herbalist and an opium den. Costumed guides ham it up along the way, helped by old movies and state-of-the-art animatronics.
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