When we were growing up in and around Ponoka, every little boy and many little girls loved to build tree-huts, chase gophers, flirt, eat ice-cream and dig tunnels. We spent many happy hours building our secret tunnels in the snow, in a hay stack, in a tree stump, on the river bank or from one under-ground play-fort to another. Most of us in our youthful years likely made a trip out to Chain Lakes, where we got to explore in the deep valleys in search of rare rocks and shells, skeletons, waterfalls, and maybe even a hidden tunnel that was left behind by the retreat of the ice-age many centuries before.
The Hopewell tunnel
It was only when our family was living in the staff cottages at the Alberta Hospital that I and my buddies found out about the Hopewell tunnel. All of us youngsters lived and played up there on those massive grounds all year round, but we always looked forward to the one and only time of the year, at the family Christmas party, that we were allowed to tear up and down all the long corridors that have connected the wards and buildings of the hospital for over a century.
The construction of the modern Hopewell Admission and Administration building was completed in 1963, but did not officially open for service until August of 1964. Included in this vital new addition to the psychiatric hospital was a long underground tunnel that ran several hundred feet from the Heritage Building to the Hopewell building and served as the only weatherproof link connecting the new facility to the rest of the hospital. What planners didn’t realize when they designed the tunnel was the fact that the area where it was to be located contained many underground artesian wells, and in order to prevent it from becoming an instant canal, they quickly had to install pumps that would have to be ready 24-7 to swing into action. In order to bring a constant flow of fresh air into the tunnel, there were vents in the ceiling that drew from the outside.
This well-lit tunnel, which also continued big steam lines and other power sources, was always very busy, night and day with the movement of the nursing and medical staff and patients, as well as the laundry, kitchen, maintenance and all other support employees who were required to transport the supplies and materials that were required to keep the hospital running smoothly on a 24-7 basis. I was told by former staff members that everything was transported on big carts, some pushed, and others pulled by tractors with electrical motors, while some individuals even travelled along the tunnel on bicycles.
When a major construction program began at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury began in 1987, many of the old and original buildings were demolished over the next five or so years to make the way for new modern psychiatric treatment facilities. The now completed centre is one of the finest in Canada, and also features a unique ‘underground world’ to facilitate the countless maintenance and related year round activities, as well as to accommodate everyone in the case of an emergency or disaster.
Deep dark secrets?
As a cub reporter for the Ponoka Herald so many years ago, I was always looking for a hot story to impress the editor. While enjoying a few drinks in a local tavern with the boys on my fastball team after a game, one of our community’s old-timers asked me if I knew about the tunnel that ran below the Morrison’s Hardware Store and the Royal and Leland Hotels many years ago.
During my 25 plus years working for Ponoka newspapers, I asked the question about ‘the tunnels’ many times, but really never did get to many answers. Some have suggested that the so-called tunnel was likely built during the era of prohibition in Alberta, so may have been used as a place to secretly distribute some of that much told about real good local ‘hooch’ that the old-timers claimed was being brewed in the country stills that were located in the hills surrounding our community. Then again, maybe it was a shelter to escape from a disaster such as a fire or a storm, or it could just have been used as the place to store the real expensive items, or even one of those big old safes or cedar chests in which the storekeeper locked up the day’s take or family keep-sakes.
As far as the crawl space that some claim went underneath the alley from the Royal to the Leland Hotels, what a great way to travel from one pub to the other without being seen, especially if the weather was bad, the wife or girlfriend came in the front door looking for you, or maybe even the jovial old town cop if one had been overindulging just a little bit too much. Whatever the case, most of these tunnels are forever gone now, and likely many of those grand and colorful and century-old tales of our community will forever remain a mystery, unless of course if someone comes forth with the ‘rest of the story’ so that we can have a little fun and just keep right on passing them all on to all of you in for many more weeks in Reflections.