Best Underground Tours to Discover America's Underbelly

America's rich history and its expansion into a industrialized nation also comes with a dark underbelly. While much of the trade and daily living occurred above ground, in the late 19th Century many of the nation's burgeoning cities had subterranean wildlife where civilized folk dare not go.

Today, tourists seeking an authentic taste of a city’s history are heading underground to catch a glimpse of what went on below ground. Similar to the miles of sprawling catacombs under Paris, cities have subterranean spaces that were once used for storage or flood prevention but morphed into epicenters for nefarious goings-on, from brothels to opium dens and to mob hangouts.

That darker side of history is a strong lure for many visitors, as tour operators have discovered.  Here, are the best below-ground options in the U.S. where you’ll experience the shadier side of U.S. history.

Underground Tours, Historic Old Sacramento Foundation, Sacramento, Calif.:  Mark Twain once wrote of this brothel-studded, 2.5 square mile underworld in California’s capital city as a place that offered shady relief from Sacramento’s hot sun. Staci Cox, who leads the Underground Tours says these chambers are actually hollow sidewalks, not tunnels (a misnomer perpetuated by the popular Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, which investigated the area for possible paranormal activity). Starting in 1863, downtown residents and business owners buttressed their properties to avoid catastrophic flooding, as Sacramento is situated in a flood plain at the convergence of the American and Sacramento rivers. Visitors can take an hour-long tour that brings guests along the original street level of Sacramento and through the bowels of bygone eras, when poor immigrants, blue-collar workers such as bootblacks and brothels set up shop below ground. During the tour, visitors will see excavated foundations and recovered artifacts from the late 1800s, including perfume vials, jugs of alcohol and hairbrushes, indicators of the prostitution that flourished along with the city’s Gold Rush explosion. “On [the tour’s first stop], three of the four businesses there were brothels,” Cox notes. “You’re looking at a city whose first residents were mostly men, and one could make a good living if one were so inclined.” Tours run daily through Nov. 27 and start up again in spring 2012.

Underground Portland: These days, Portland is known for its green-living vibe and thriving bike culture. But at the turn of the century, the coastal city, a major gateway in the global shipping trade, was “a pretty rough place,” says Gary Corbin, a longtime resident who leads the Underground Portland tours for Portland Walking Tours. “At one point, the population was 80 percent male, and these were not nice guys. They would as easily punch somebody as buy them a drink.” Underground Portland tours provide an up-close look at this gritty history, including the legends of Shanghaiing --the dubious practice of kidnapping able-bodied men, taking them through a series of passageways under the city known as the Shanghai Tunnels, and forcing them to work with no pay on Orient-bound ships. While many of the Shanghaiing stories are more fiction than fact, Corbin says, the 20 or so miles of tunnels below Portland’s surface did house plenty of unscrupulous dealings, including gang fights, drug dealing, prostitution and murders. Today, the city doesn’t allow access into the tunnels, but with the two-hour Underground Portland tour, you’ll get as close as the entrance to them. Other below-ground highlights include the basement under a current pizza restaurant that once housed a hotel with a prominent brothel, now reportedly haunted by the spirit of a woman forced into prostitution. Underground Portland tour offered daily, rain or shine.

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Underground Tour of Old Seattle, Seattle, Wash.: Just some of the intriguing Seattle history you’ll learn on this leisurely tour: toilets that once backed up with the tidal flow, the city’s 2,000-plus “seamstresses” who were really prostitutes, and some seriously screwed-up urban planning. Created in 1965 by the late Bill Speidel, an ardent Seattle preservationist, this 90-minute tour starts off at Doc Maynard’s, a restored 1890’s pub, and snakes through an approximately three-block world under the Pioneer Square Historic District. In the dusty basements and sidewalks that were once the main level of Seattle’s downtown, you’ll learn about how the city rose from the ashes of its massive fire in 1889 to an M.C. Escher-esque jumble of brick-and-mortar buildings on varying levels, complete with uneven storefronts and even ladders to cross the street. Among the bygone businesses that once flourished in this subterranean maze: gambling parlors, illegal lotteries, opium dens, speakeasies and brothels. Tours offered hourly most days of the year.

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Ellinwood’s Underground World, Ellinwood, Kansas: A sort of underground ghost town lies beneath Ellinwood, once a stop on the historic Santa Fe Trail. This tunnel tour takes guests into subterranean spaces that, in the late 1800s, housed saloons, a barber shop and a bathhouse, where women known as “soiled doves” would entertain male patrons while their clothes dried. Much of the area is very well preserved, including Jung’s Barber Shop, which still has its original wallpaper, flooring and barber’s chair and mirror. Other artifacts include a deer head on the wall, a water pump, bathtubs and an ironing board. Tours are offered most days (though note that the official tour operator has recently changed, so contact the Ellinwood Chamber of Commerce for more information).