Weatherford Hotel

The mystery of the downtown Flagstaff “secret underground tunnels” solved?

At the risk of debunking the many entertaining myths the surround the often discussed “secret underground tunnel system” that is still partially intact under downtown Flagstaff, it appears that regardless of what nefarious purposes these tunnels may or may not have been used for, they were actually built for a surprisingly boring purpose: housing steam pipes.

From The Northern Arizona Leader, 25 June 1920: “The Flagstaff Electric light company has just begun the installation of steam mains which will distribute steam throughout the business section of town for heating purposes. After the first of next October the merchant in Flagstaff can turn on the heat as easily as he now turns on his lights and the friendly old stove that scorched your coat tails when you were not noticing, and smoked up the premises whether you noticed or not, will be a thing of the past in Flagstaff stores.”

The lumber business was an important part of the Flagstaff economy for many years (hence NAU’s Lumberjack mascot), and the sawmill operators devised an ingenious way to earn extra cash in a way that also served the community. They decided to burn the sawdust that was a by-product of their operations and pump the generated steam to the buildings in the downtown commercial district, which ended up being cheaper and far less dangerous then the heating methods that were used previously. This system help up from 1920 until 1966, and it featured an extra component until 1950 that used the same steam to spin turbines that created electricity.

One of the reasons that the Weatherford and many other historical buildings in downtown Flagstaff did not succumb to fire in the same way they had in the earliest days of the town is due to a surprisingly sustainable and safe heating system that lasted for close to fifty years. While it’s often brought up that the lack of catastrophic fires after 1887 or so was due to a law requiring new buildings to be constructed of steel and rock as opposed to wood, the fact that the rock-built Commercial Hotel burned to the ground in 1975 shows that this story isn’t so simple.

We’re not saying definitively that the tunnels were never used for rum-running, opium smuggling, or similar fun activities, but it looks like their creation was much more mundane — although it’s important to remember that this nearly forgotten steam system provided safe and sustainable heating for a good chunk of Flagstaff’s (and the Weatherford’s) existence.