Question: What eastern Manitoba town has a history of draft-dodging, rum running and dimly lit gambling dens? Hint: It’s on the Whitemouth River, at the junction of Hwy 15 and Hwy 11.
To most, the roaring twenties and dirty thirties conjure up images of big black cars, carrying whiskey-swilling, cigar-smoking card players wearing dark-brimmed hats. Such scenes were commonplace along the streets and outside the pool hall of Elma.
For decades, speculation and rumour have fuelled stories of some notso- legal goings-on in this little eastern settlement. It is no secret that during prohibition and the pre-war years, gambling and drinking were routine in most rural settlements. Elma was no different. One place in particular, located behind the old pool hall on Elma’s main street, proves this.
While cleaning the basement of his then-newly acquired property in 2001, Elma resident Frank Smirch stumbled upon an elaborately constructed gambling den and hundreds of feet of concrete-lined tunnels, just large enough for a person to crawl through on hands and knees.
In 1998, Smirch purchased a large lot facing Elma’s main street from Whitemouth resident Frank Laba. The lot contained both the pool hall and a uniquely designed and constructed one-and-a-half storey home. Laba had acquired the property at a Salvation Army auction during the early 1990s.
The home and pool hall were originally designed and constructed by a Mr. P. Kolega in the early 1900s. After Kolega’s death, and subsequently his son’s passing, the property was willed to the Salvation Army, who chose to put the unique site on the auction block.
To describe Kolega as a skilled craftsman would be woefully inadequate. The home was constructed with a solid wood frame, covered in one-quarterinch to one-half-inch wood slabs, which were in turn completely sealed in tin. Kolega did this by cutting open tin cans, flattening them and fastening them to the inside and outside walls of his home. He then covered them in a generous, elaborately sculptured layer of cement.
Even the back yard outhouse was a monument to enduring craftsmanship containing all the same elements of wood, tin and cement. In the basement of the home there remains obvious signs of a lively and colourful past. Evidence of an ornate chandelier, cupboards, and storage closets, is still visible to this day.
Passing through the cement-lined walls of the lowest level leads to a small, dimly lit coal room at the far north end of the home. High on the wall is a two-foot door leading to the backyard at ground level. Directly below is a slightly smaller opening that had been, until discovered by Mr. Smirch in 2001, sealed up and filled with debris.
Crawling head first into the opening, one is immediately confronted with the decision to head west for a few meters then possibly south or to turn east, crawling for approximately 30 feet before venturing either north or south as well. The easterly tunnel appears to run just past the edge of the home before branching off. Unfortunately, since the tunnels remain flooded with several inches of very cold water, no one has ventured far enough to discover just how far, and to where they extend.
Long time residents of Elma report hearing stories of the tunnels extending as far as the railway tracks on the south side of the street and to the old dance hall in the north. Stories still circulate of days when draft-dodgers were hidden in the house and rum running was a common occurrence. These illegal activities were undoubtedly abetted by the underground passages leading from Smirch’s basement coal room all the way to waiting railroad cars.
Not surprisingly, the passage of time has had an effect on the underground labyrinth. However, preliminary evidence would suggest Kolega took as much care to construct his tunnels as solidly as he did his cement house. And so maybe, just maybe, they remain intact, further preserving the once-roaring history of the town of Elma.