San Francisco’s Black Plague Epidemic

During the course of the Missoula Historic Undeground Project we heard many stories about how the underground was built and used by the Chinese immigrant population in the early days of Missoula. This claim is by no means isolated to Missoula. Take an underground tour in some of the larger cities such as Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and you’ll hear similar stories.

Rumors of secret underground passages of the Chinese are not new. On March 6, 1900, it was believed that the Black Plague had descended upon San Francisco and that a man recently arrived from China was patient zero. The mayor of that city asked for physician volunteers to complete an inspection of Chinatown (then twelve city blocks) to look for evidence of others stricken with the disease.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. <;

Dr. William G. Hay was one of the first to volunteer and his claim was that “he and fellow inspectors had to crawl through an intricate maze of rat holes that connected the houses in an underground network of secret passages” and that relatives would be able to move the sick through these passages “with such neatness and dispatch that no white man can follow them” (Kalisch 1972:119).

Kalisch, Philip A.
1972     The Black Death in Chinatown: Plague and Politics in San Francisco 1900-1904. Arizona and the West 14(2):113–136.