Prior to 2002, the labyrinthine underworld of Las Vegas’ flood control channels was unknown–except to the people living in the tunnels. Las Vegas journalists Matt O’Brien and Joshua Ellis first learned about this hidden world when a murder suspect escaped into the tunnels and eluded police. Intrigued, the two men explored some of the underground flood channels and co-wrote a series of articles about the tunnels for Las Vegas CityLife. In 2004, O’Brien returned to the tunnels for summer of exploration, and in 2007, his book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, revealed what life was like for the people who had taken up residence underneath Las Vegas. Three years later, O’Brien remains the definitive source of information for anyone curious about the world beneath Las Vegas.
“I have no idea who or what lurks in the shadows. Another ex-con? A group of meth freaks? A pack of wild dogs? What in the hell am I doing in here?” –From Beneath the Neon
There are no tours into the tunnels, nor any kind of regular public access. It’s a good thing, because the tunnels are dangerous. Dark, cramped, and crawling with creatures like crawfish and black widow spiders, Las Vegas’ underground flood channels seem like an unlikely place for people to live. When it rains, the tunnels can rapidly fill with fast-moving water. Although you might not associate floods with Las Vegas, the city has been grappling with flash floods since it was founded–which is the reason the tunnels were constructed in the first place. So why are 200 to 300 people living underneath Las Vegas in these flood control channels? Addictions, brutal summer heat, and scarce social services for the homeless drive some into the tunnels. Resourceful residents find ways to drag in furniture and create make-shift kitchens. During the summer he spent under Las Vegas, O’Brien met these people, and what he saw stayed with him. He founded Shine A Light, a project dedicated to helping people living in the tunnels. Working in conjunction with HELP of Southern Nevada, Shine A Light has helped approximately 30 people move out of the tunnels. O’Brien stays in contact with some of the residents, relays messages from friends and family, and sometimes takes reporters to the tunnels. But he says that despite the media attention, not a lot has changed for the people living under Las Vegas. He meets media people searching for sensational stories–as he puts it, “Looking for a family of four that lost their $300,000.00 home,” but that’s not representative of the people in the flood channels. Some of the residents have been living in the tunnels for years. They keep an eye on the weather reports, knowing that the infamous Las Vegas floods can wash away both possessions and people.
“Let it be known: ‘Here There Be Dragons’ …and ghosts, madmen, and maybe even a troll.” –From Beneath the Neon
When I talked with O’Brien, I asked him what he wished visitors knew about the hidden city underneath their feet. “There’s another side to Vegas,” he responded. While most of Las Vegas’ image is all about luxury hotels, poker rooms, and big shows, the story of the tunnels illustrates the costs of living in Las Vegas. For most, Las Vegas represents a fun getaway and the chance to hit it big. But for those who cannot stop gambling, or find drugs irresistible, Las Vegas is as dangerous as its tunnels. And the tunnels may be where those desperate souls arrive. As O’Brien describes it, they represent “the American dream gone awry.”
All photos courtesy of Danny Mollohan