Prohibition Tunnels and Downtown Rhinelander

Sep 11, 2019

This week's A Northwoods Moment in History feature is in response to a recent Curious North question WXPR received.

LJ Sommers asked: There have been rumors for years about tunnels underneath the streets of downtown Rhinelander used during prohibition. Is this a fact or simply a fictional take?

To answer LJ's question, here's Gary Entz.

The idea that Prohibition-era moonshiners were busy tunneling under city streets in order to evade the law is a tale common to many towns and cities across the United States.  It is a frequently told story for two reasons.  First, more than a few large cities did indeed have underground tunnels used to secret illegal liquor during the Prohibition years.  Second, the idea of an underground network of tunnels has a bit of an adventurous appeal to it, and if they were in large cities then why not in smaller places too?

All one really has to do is consider the logistics of it.  To physically construct clandestine tunnels underneath the street requires expertise in tunneling, plentiful timbers to shore up the tunnels so the streets above don’t collapse, and the opportunity to remove the excavated material so that law enforcement would not notice.  Plus, the profits generated from any tunnel would have to be enough to offset the expense of building it.  Did anyone really go to all that trouble when a hidey hole in a basement would suffice?  Other Northwoods towns like Crandon had active moonshine operations and used basement hiding spots, but crime statistics for Prohibition-era Rhinelander show that alcohol-related arrests fell dramatically between 1918 and 1928.  Either law enforcement was turning a blind eye to alcohol in the city, which it was to an extent, or the economic activity necessary to support the expense of tunneling just wasn’t there, which was also true as the lumber industry was in serious decline at the time.

So, were there any tunnels beneath the streets of downtown Rhinelander?  It was only a few years ago that the downtown Rhinelander streets of Brown, Davenport, and Stevens were completely excavated during the streetscape reconstruction project.  During that entire project only one tunnel was uncovered, and its presence was known ahead of time.  That tunnel runs across Stevens Street from the Associated Bank building to the old bank drive-up.  Beyond this Stevens Street tunnel, there were in fact at least two other tunnels running beneath Rhinelander, but neither was dug to evade government liquor inspectors.

Otto Hilgerman, who founded the Rhinelander Brewery, built a house on the 900 block of Arbutus Street in 1897.  Naturally when Hilgerman had guests he wanted to entertain them with the freshest beer possible.  Therefore, Hilgerman constructed a tunnel between the Rhinelander Brewery and his home so he could always have fresh beer straight from the brewery on tap.  Although the brewery shut down operations during national Prohibition, the tunnel remained and could have been used during that time.  However, since some of Rhinelander’s most prominent families occupied the house during the 1920s and 1930s, it is unlikely that they engaged in reputation-damaging activities like bootlegging.

A third tunnel appeared in the 1950s at the Oneida County jail, but that had nothing to do with Prohibition and is a story unto itself.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this commentary came from Podington Bear and Dazie Mae. The above photo is used with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

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