Great Falls Beneath Your Feet: Investigating rumors of an underground tunnel system

Rumors have swirled for years about the existence of an underground tunnel system located deep below the city of Great Falls that dates back to the founding of the city in the 1800s. However, little-to-no historical proof or reference exists to confirm it's existence. ABC Fox Montana's Katie Widner looked into the mystery.

"There are enough stories and enough hints. There is no question that there were at least a couple of tunnel networks within Great Falls," says local historian Ken Robison.

One tunnel system that did exist, was located under the sidewalks on Central Avenue downtown and used commercially in the '40s and '50s for coal. A number of residents Widner interviewed remembered the clear squares that were placed in the sidewalk to allow light into the tunnels, and which people could actually look through and peer into the area. These tunnels were filled-in in the early '90s during a streetscaping project, after they began to incur water issues. The History Museum provided KFBB photos (at right) of the project.

There are also, of course, the well-documented tunnels underneath Great Falls High School which were used to house the electrical wiring and boiler system, and eventually intended as a bomb shelter during the Cold War.

However, the tunnels in question preempt those eras and reportedly date back to the founding of the city. Who built them, and what they were used for, remains unclear but Robinson says one locally well-known name does come to mind- Paris Gibson. 

"Gibson, being the father of Great Falls, I'm sure was knee deep in any activity like building tunnel networks in early Great Falls," he adds.

Kelly Parks, who has been restoring the Gibson mansion since 2009, says she has found proof, connecting the tunnels and the city's founding family. A claim which was documented by The Dead Files on the Travel Channel.

"I said "this is where I think the tunnel is," and of course it has a concrete floor now and I couldn't really prove it," Parks recalls. "They did the ground-penetrating radar and determined that there is in fact a void there."

Parks also says an excavation of the outside of the house that she did on her own, exposed a tunnel that has been filled with large chunks of concrete so that it cannot be accessed. 

So where does that tunnel lead to?

A few people Widner spoke with say to the Park Hotel downtown, which was owned by Gibson and located just a few blocks away from the mansion. Many people she spoke with say they have seen access points inside various buildings on Central Ave.  

"The basement of the Murphy-Maclay Building when I had my chocolate shop, (had) an access there to the tunnel system," Parks claims.    

Even a stranger, who approached Widner on the street during filming, said he has seen bricked-up tunnel entrances in the basement of some downtown buildings. Two sources told Widner that at the intersection of 9th Street North and Central Avenue, following the demolition of an old service station where the coffee shop True Brew now stands, they saw a bricked entry point leading underground. The street corner is just across from the Masonic Temple, where some of the people interviewed believe there are connecting tunnels beneath. A number of people who saw the story after it aired have reached out, either through social media, or via email with their own stories.

However, getting people to grant KFBB access to the entrances, or even to talk about them, proved tough. Widner reached out a collective two-dozen people and downtown businesses, but has not yet been able to get access down below. 

To find someone who says they have been inside of a tunnel, Widner did not have to look far. KFBB production and promotions manager, Dave Dabler,  says he entered through an access in the basement of the old Beckman Building, which was built in the late 1800s at 311 Central Ave. 

Dabler, who gave us the idea for the story, says it happened when he worked in the building about twenty years ago in a store called Needful Things and Fine Line Tattoos. He says he and a co-worker followed a worker who had been called to fix the hot water into the basement. The trio apparently found huge safe that Dabler says looked like "an underground bunker," and where he guesses fur coats used to be stored when it was Beckman's Furs.

Dabler says they went to the back of the safe, through another door and discovered a steel plate had been bolted into the wall.

"We unbolted it, not knowing if we were supposed to or not," says Dabler. "We unbolted it, took a little peak in there."

He says the worker loaned them tools and flashlights.

"We're talking cave black is what I like to call it. When you look down, the finite powder that had settled over time in this area gave the illusion the ground was flat," Dabler recalls. "Really cold as if you were in a cave, which you wouldn't expect it. You're only probably a floor beneath the ground."   

(To hear more of what Dave Dabler says it was like inside of the area below the Beckman Building, watch his full interview below.)

The current tenant of the building, Kandy Zanto, told Widner over the phone that the access point has long since been bricked-in and storage was built in front of it. 

So the question of why remains. Why the perceived secrecy? Why aren't there any historical records? It is a mystery the local History Museum would like to get to the bottom of.

"We really need to hear from people that have any knowledge, especially if they have real experience and have had a building where you can open it up and know that there was a tunnel there and it might have been blocked up a few feet," says Robison.   

"Why they're hidden, I don't know," says Parks. "Why they're hidden and no one will talk about them, now I really want to know why."

If you have any information on the tunnels, the History Museum would like to hear about it for their archives. Please contact archives administrator Megan Sanford at (406) 452-3462, or by emailing archives@thehistorymuseum.org.

To connect with Katie Widner about this story, you can email her at kwidner@kfbb.com.

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