By Moira Blazi
Downtown Libby, especially the areas around California, Mineral and Third and Fourth Streets, is still filled with historic old buildings. We don’t call them “historic,” we just occupy them, and so live, work and play in the midst of local history.
Stories abound “of the old pioneer days, when just a few buildings stood, three of these original structures are the Libby Hotel, the American Legion Building, and just across the street, the old Libby Mercantile.
If you talk to some old timers, they may tell you there were once tunnels under the street connecting these old buildings. Hard evidence of this is surprisingly hard to find, but some do believe its true.
“As the story goes, there were underground tunnels connecting the Hotel to the basement of the Mercantile, and under the street to the Legion building which was Libby’s first bank,” Libby Hotel owner Gail Burger told The Montanian. “I can see the reason for it,” she continued, “We don’t know how much money they dealt with, and it was during prohibition when there was most likely a speakeasy in the mercantile basement.”
Burger took me down to the basement of the Libby Hotel, where, across the still mostly empty lot, the south wall faces the north side of the old mercantile building. There she showed me a bricked in archway, about five feet tall, which, she says, could have been the tunnel entrance, but, she added with a smile, “nobody really knows.”
The basement of the old Libby Mercantile building was dug by hand, as the story goes, by one 16 year old boy named Rawlings with the help of a team of horses and a fresno, which is a backhoe scoop- like tool pulled by the horses.
In more recent years, this space was a popular bar called, “The Loading Chute” which closed in the 90’s. Today, there are still glasses sitting on the bar and balls on the old billiard table as if waiting for the ghosts of old timers to come in for an evening of amusement.
The bar was undoubtably aptly named after the original use of the space, which was storage for the large amount of merchandise sold in the building above. Still visible is the old water lift freight elevator, which operated by filling the cavity beneath its platform with water, to lower it they simply let the water out.
It is very easy to imagine this space as a speakeasy, since, during the 1920’s, everywhere in America, even frontier towns like Libby, alcoholic spirits were illegal.
Some say that there may have been one in the basement of the Pastime, which in those days, according to present owner Sandy Doubek, was a soda fountain, selling pop and candy upstairs, and possibly other things down in the basement.
Finding hard historical evidence of underground activities is almost impossible, but it is not hard to believe that the miners, loggers, and entrepreneurs who traveled through this wild country and stayed in the Libby Hotel which was at the time, “the finest hotel from Spokane to the Dakotas,” took a short underground stroll to the town speakeasy.
Only the ghosts know for sure. If anyone has any information on this colorful and illicit history, please contact The Montanian because the ghosts are not talking.
Photo of water freight elevator in the old Libby Mercantile building. Photo by Moira Blazi, The Montanian.
The underground bar called “The Loading Chute Bar” found under the old Libby Mercantile building. Photo by Moira Blazi, The Montanian.