By Denise Ortuno Neil
While the busy streets of downtown Palm Springs pitter patter with the sounds of sun seeking tourists, something lies beneath. Is it real or just a pesky rumor that refuses to die? It is a question asked by those who have heard the stories and now it’s time to find out what lies beneath Palm Springs.
I remember many, many years ago hearing the stories and even going on my own Nancy Drew type adventures trying to look for them. I was in search of the tunnels of Palm Springs. It was hard to pinpoint where they were and how to get to them. At one point, I was led to the underground parking structure at the Palm Springs Fashion Plaza, but after driving round and round looking for the magical entrance to the infamous tunnels, my search became fruitless. The leads to the tunnels dimmed after that, as the trail went cold and the stories potency became low.
Where and when the story of the tunnels started one can only speculate as, but with most city stories there is usually some truth behind them and they are started with some spec of reality. Recently my quest for the tunnels has come into focus, and the reality of them is more than clear. The biggest connection to the tale of the tunnels seems to hover around two locations, The Colony Palms Hotel and the previous spot of where Don the Beachcomber used to be. Here’s how the story goes.
The Colony Palms Hotel off Indian Canyon was originally built by Detroit mobster Al Wertheimer of the Purple Gang. Wertheimer came to the desert in 1934, and besides opening what was then called the Colonial House, the visionary mobster also opened the Dunes Club in Cathedral City in 1935, which was a full service casino/nightclub/hotspot for the well to do celebrity crowd.
Wertheimer opened the Colonial House in 1936, catering to the Hollywood elite and those with wads of cash to spend. The hotel was a beacon for gamblers and for guests that were looking for a little more than just a tan, as the hotel was also fitted with a brothel.
The underground speakeasy at the hotel furnished guests with that extra bit of privacy and exclusivity, hence the underground part.
It is said that old school pioneers and leaders of Palm Springs were less than thrilled with their new criminal minded neighbor, but that didn’t stop Wertheimer from making a go of the sinful spot until it, along with other valley casinos, got raided in 1941, putting an end to unbridled fun in the desert.
After that the hotel was purchased by Robert and Andrea Leeds Howard (owners of the famous horse Sea biscuit) and renamed it Howard Manor. The new hotel continued to be popular with Hollywood for decades more until 1970, when it was purchased by a new owner and turned into The Palms Health Spa.
Don the Beachcomber was opened over 20 years after The Colonial House, and was part of the Tiki inspired franchise. It was a very popular club on North Palm Canyon that also waved in the Hollywood who’s who, like most Palm Springs cool spots did back then.
So where’s the connection you might ask? Well, here is one possibility. The tunnels have been confirmed to exist below what used to be Don the Beachcomber. My sources are more than reputable and there is no question to their validity. These sources have traveled through a portion of the tunnels, but cannot say how far they go, or where the stem of origin begins.
Being as how the speakeasy was underground, and that Wertheimer was dealing in prostitution, it is easy to come to the conclusion (as one of my sources proposed) that he used the tunnels to go from his hotel, to the area in which Don the Beachcomber was later built. After doing some research I found that the Don the Beachcomber building was adjacent to the Sunset Towers apartments, but was not built until 1952. The dates don’t match up, but just because there wasn’t a building on top of the location, doesn’t mean that the location didn’t exist…there is always the underground. And because that area is near the beautiful sprawling estates of Las Palmas, the theory is even stronger as there would be plenty of places from which to go from the tunnels.
Tunnels in the desert are not as far-fetched as one might think. There are documented sites of Al Capone’s tunnels underneath his old hide-out at Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs that he no doubt used for a multitude of illicit behavior. It is said that Wertheimer and Capone were both in on the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Perhaps they later met up in the desert and Capone gave Wertheimer some tips on tunnel building.
And then there is the huge 13 mile tunnel that runs underneath San Jacinto for the much non-criminal act of distributing water. The tunnel was completed back in 1938 and took six years to complete. It is part of the Colorado River Aqueduct system, and has been looked at as an engineering marvel. The West Portal entrance to the tunnel is in Cabazon and connects to the east portal off Soboba Road near San Jacinto.
Today The Colonial House is The Colony Palms Hotel, which re-opened in 2007 after a 15 million renovation. The hotel is lovely, and harkens back to the glamour it possessed in its heyday…without the gambling and brothel of course. The Purple Palm restaurant sits above what used to be the speakeasy, and hopefully they will re-open it one day as homage to Wertheimer himself.
Without a crystal clear story from those in the know (city officials for instance) on why or how the tunnels came to be, we as the public are forced to come up with our own conclusion, and the weird conspiracy type tales that go with it. But that is what is so enjoyable about our desert area and Palm Springs in particular; it is just oozing with mystery. Until the truth is revealed, there will always be the question of…. “What lies beneath Palm Springs”?
For more information about The Colony Palms Hotel visit www.colonypalmshotel.com .