Did Victoria Street really have underground shops?

YOU ASKED: I am hoping you can tell me about the underground stores or mall that I have heard about in I think the 200 block of Victoria Street. Is this a rumour or is there really an old, underground shopping area on Victoria Street?

- Thanks, Sally

OUR ANSWER: There is definitely some truth to this one, Sally.

According to Elisabeth Duckworth, manager of Kamloops Museum and Archives, at least one section of Victoria Street shows evidence there was once a collection of stores or shops below the sidewalk.

That section is the Ellis Block, at the corner of Victoria Street and Fourth Avenue, which is probably best known today as the Zack's coffee shop building.

Back in 1914, when the Ellis Block was built, it wasn't joined to any buildings on Victoria Street, as it appears to be today.

"The building blocks used to be separated by little alleyways," said Duckworth, referring to narrow walkways that ran perpendicular to Victoria Street.

These walkways - at least the one that separated the Ellis Block from its then-neighbour -led down to a number of lower-level shops.

"So, under Zack's, if you were to go down to what seems to be the basement, that was a level where there were a few shops," said Duckworth.

"And then there's another basement under there, which is the real basement."

Zack's owner, Kevin Arneil, was kind enough to let our Readers' Reporter crew into the building on Monday so we could see for ourselves.

He showed us a fascinating, and seemingly endless, collection of concrete hallways, tiered passageways and wooden stairways connecting rooms of various sizes - most of which his coffee shop uses for storage.

The alleyway that Duckworth refers to has been enclosed for decades. Today, it could easily be mistaken for a simple hallway if it weren't for the glass blocks in the floor (an architectural technique used to transmit daylight from the sidewalk into the stores below) and what appears to be a covered hatch that once led from street level to a small, narrow room.

There's also another small room with bars on the window. Arneil suspects it was once used as an icebox. It appears to line up with the other rooms connected to the old alleyway.

Interestingly, there are no indications of tunnels leading in or out of the underground Ellis Block, just stairs leading up to the street level.

"You know, it wasn't as if the whole downtown was a honeycomb of tunnels or anything. It was mainly confined, as far as I understand, underneath business blocks," said Duckworth.

"Where the mythology comes in is (in the belief) there's this connecting network of tunnels, and that's not the case, that never was the case."

Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of photos documenting the underground stores beneath Zack's, so we can't tell you much about the kinds of shops that once operated there.

We even tried the building's owner, The Kelson Group, to see if they knew anything about the early years of the Ellis Block - beyond what has been documented.

The building used to house a pharmacy but, aside from that, Ron Fawcett said when he bought the block 25 years ago it did not come with much information about the history of previous tenants.

Arneil, meanwhile, estimates there is about 4,000 square feet of rooms, stairways, hallways and alcoves below his coffee shop.

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