Los Angeles is full of secrets — and we keep uncovering new things even after a decade of living here. Kevin and I recently were invited by Cartwheel Art to check out one of the most unique tours we’ve ever taken: a trip deep into the underground network of tunnels that thrived in Los Angeles during the prohibition era.
Cartwheel Art offers a wide range of unique tours on the weekends that will take you off the typical tourist track such as paranormal encounters, arts district mural tours and one that involves street art and barbecue (a combo that also sounds pretty good to me!). But as soon as I heard about the Underground Tour, I knew it was right up my alley!
We met our guide Hadley at 3:30 PM, outside Cole’s French Dip in Downtown LA, where we’d take off to explore LA’s underground past ranging from famous Prohibition-era murders to the speakeasy haunts that the Hollywood elite would frequent. We also signed a non-disclosure agreement since many of these spots are “hidden in plain sight.” Out of respect for the businesses, we all agreed to keep the tunnel entrances a secret. The tunnels are scary enough without having random people trying to get inside them and running under the city!
Cole’s was a natural place to start off the tour given it’s long connection to the prohibition era. Situated on the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building, Cole’s served as part of the main terminal for what was once the world’s largest electric rail system. Before automobiles ruled the roads of Los Angeles, all lines led to Cole’s. Be sure to head inside to check out the photos lining the walls where mobsters, politicians, writers and all sorts of hard-working folks once went for a beer and a bite. We followed Hadley outside where you can still see where the trains would depart the building, which is now a parking lot (and so very LA!).
From here, we walked down Main Street — once the hub of downtown LA’s business district — to visit easily the creepiest stop on the tour: The Hotel Cecil.
Home to murderers, maniacs and ghosts, the Cecil is anything but your regular hotel. But could it really be cursed? The Cecil was not only home to the infamous serial killer Richard Ramirez (aka The Night Stalker), but also fellow killer Jack Unterweger. There have been many strange deaths over the years, but perhaps none as perplexing as in 2013 when a Canadian student was captured on the hotel’s surveillance camera acting strangely and clearly scared of someone (or something!). It wasn’t until after the hotel got complaints from guests that their water smelled and tasted funny that they checked out the rooftop water tanks and discovered her body inside with the lid closed! Eek, I still get the chills. Rumor has it that a developer has big plans to re-open the place as a high-end hotel. One thing is certain, I will NEVER (ever!) book a room here.
We continued our way along several more stops — most of which were hotels with ghost stories. Hadley knew not only about the general history of LA, but about some of the odd stories — like one about the original elevator at the Hotel Barclay. It was one of the first elevators installed, but let’s just say, there were a few issues with it not stopping when people were getting out at the same time!
Now that we had our share of creepy stories, we moved onto a much lighter subject: Art! Each of the Cartwheel tours offers some connection to the art world. We ended up swinging through a part of Los Angeles neither Kevin nor I knew existed: Indian Alley.
We loved the mural outside, which was done by Shepard Fairey who famously painted the Obama “Hope” poster. We followed Hadley to a nearby art gallery that had an exhibition on photography (and a pretty fun gift shop which is where I ended up!).
We made a few more stops along the way — including a really cool dive bar at the King Edward Hotel.
The bar was a dive back when it first opened and remains the case now. We also got complimentary shots and enjoyed a brief break before continuing our journey. Be sure to check out the bathroom while you’re there. You’ll thank us after seeing it (or think you walked onto the set of CSI!).
Now for the speakeasy part. I purposely separated out the underground shots so you couldn’t figure out where to find them. Trust me, I know all the tricks and probably would try to figure it out as well. We learned that during prohibition, alcohol was much easier to get than you might think. The studios were mostly up in Los Feliz, Silverlake and Hollywood. But the young Hollywood stars — flush with cash — would head to downtown LA to party it up! But the businesses had to come up with creative ways to hide the goods. Below are some of the hidden bars only recently discovered and available to tour with Cartwheel Art.
Next up, we go deep into the dark tunnels. Watch out for cockroaches, mice and ghosts. The owners who have access to all these locations have reported seeing all of the above!
The underground speakeasies still have many of the original items left behind. Today the business owners are still sorting through many of the collectible items.
And of course, the “legal” speakeasies are coming back in vogue. The tour included stops at two recently-opened speakeasies (all accessible to the public) that channel the prohibition fun. But part of the fun is just finding them. On this trip we checked out the deceivingly large El Dorado as well as the very cool Rhythm Room, which once was a hub for the jazz scene that exploded in LA in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
And that’s where we wrapped! Afterwards, we grabbed some dinner nearby at Little Sister, which I’ve been dying to try for months. It was a perfect way to wrap up our evening and see just how far LA has changed over the years. Be sure to check out the tour, and we guarantee you’ll learn something new and find parts of LA you never knew existed.
THE LOW DOWN:
- Cartwheel Art offers a variety of public tours which can be booked directly off their website. They also can do private tours if arranged in advance.
- Tickets for the Underground tour are $85 per person. Each tour is limited to a small group and run about 2.5 to 3 hours.
- Public tours are offered on the weekends. In addition to the Underground tour, they also are currently offering Paranormal ghost tours, an Arts District mural tour, and a graffiti and barbecue tour.
- Each tour is customized and can vary depending on what’s available each day. It makes it especially fun if you plan to do the tour more than once with visitors in town.
- Besides taking a tour, be sure to check out Cartwheel Art Magazine, which has become the go-to for Los Angeles’ art scene news, updates, interviews, reviews and coverage of local and national art fairs. Each tour incorporates art into it, which we loved!