FRESNO. (AP) — Backhoes began digging up a parking lot in downtown Fresno on Monday in search of underground tunnels and artifacts from an 1880s-era Chinatown neighborhood that lies in the path of California's planned high-speed rail network.
An archaeological report prepared by the High-Speed Rail Authority indicates crews could find decades-old artifacts on several properties in the area. It also casts doubt on the existence of the tunnels, which it says are "questioned by scholars, cultural resource specialists, and the general public alike."
However, it does not totally rule them out.
Community groups say the tunnels that linked businesses, residences, gambling halls and houses of prostitution are critical pieces of history for the nearly dozen ethnic communities that helped found Fresno in the 1870s and 1880s. The Associated Press photographed the tunnels in 2007.
"It's our history, it's Fresno's history, it's valuable history," said Kathy Omachi, founder of the group Chinatown Revitalization Inc. "It's something you can actually put your hand on to say this is our history, and they're going to throw it away."
The rail authority's plan says it will work with the Fresno Historic Preservation Society to ensure any relevant artifacts are collected, transported and properly stored.
The once robust 17-block Chinatown is now just a few streets of rundown buildings. Archaeological reports indicate that by 1885, the area had grown to include homes, stores, a gambling hall and Chinese "shanties."
The area was home to Chinese, Japanese, Armenians, Mexican-Americans, Portuguese, Basque, Italians, African-Americans, Germans from Volga, Russians and Greeks.
The rail authority plans to buy or seize dozens of area properties through eminent domain to make way for the downtown Fresno high-speed rail station and to shift the current freight railroad tracks to accommodate the first 30-mile stretch of the high-speed rail line.
The rail authority's 2011-12 construction plan review said officials had identified no archaeological resources of concern, despite a 2007 excavation that the archaeological review said had found "an intact artifact deposit consisting of 19th century Chinese artifacts directly beneath" a layer of burned soil that could have "historic deposits with integrity and research potential."
Omachi's group is upset that it was not consulted about the archaeological report and that no public input was taken, even though members have been working with the rail authority on other issues for three years.
The draft report, dated Jan. 29, says there are three theories on how the tunnels were used: for illegal activity such as gambling, prostitution, bootlegging and smuggling; to connect businesses and store perishable food; or as an extension of limited living spaces.
"Some describe an extensive subterranean system of free standing tunnels in Fresno Chinatown and beyond the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks; others have concluded that the tunnels were a simple network of connected basements, which are now sealed off," the report says.
The rail authority signed a nearly $1 billion contract with a California-based consortium to design and build the first 30 miles of the project, but the excavation work is not included. It is expected to last at least a week.