A photo from the early 20th century depicts Chinese-Americans smoking in an opium den. North Yakima officials launched a years-long campaign to eradicate such dens from the city. (Library of Congress, courtesy photo)

Battling a drug epidemic, particularly with opioids, is not a new thing for Yakima authorities.

Long before issues with methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids, Yakima’s police and politicians were struggling with a wave of opium use centered around the city’s China Town. A campaign platform of eradicating opium use even brought one Yakima County pioneer into political office.

Many cities on the West Coast saw opium dens spring up, particularly in areas where Chinese immigrants came in.

It should be noted in fairness that opium smoking was a vice that was foisted upon China in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by the East India Company as part of an insidious scheme to get a foot in the door for trading. After securing a monopoly on opium production in India, the East India merchants smuggled the drug into China in large quantities, with the proceeds from the drug sales going to buy goods to sell back in England at a significant profit.

China’s imperial government attempted to stamp out the illicit trade, but that led to the Opium Wars, in which Great Britain forced the Chinese to legalize opium, as well as open more ports to British traders and turn over Hong Kong.

It also furthered the spread of opium addiction among the Chinese, a problem that was not fully eradicated until Mao Zedong’s communist government took power in 1949.

In the 1890s, North Yakima was becoming another battleground in the fight against opium, just like other West Coast cities. While opium was becoming a problem around the city in general, the focal point of the activity was North Yakima’s China Town, an area bordered by East Yakima Avenue and South Front, East Walnut and South Second streets.

In 1893, North Yakima police officers stepped up their patrols in China Town, raiding many places they suspected were either dealing in opium or dens where people could smoke the opium-tobacco mixture.

The raids usually netted the pipes and paraphernalia used in smoking opium, which police destroyed in much the same manner that authorities would later dump illegal alcohol during Prohibition, while arresting the drug users.

They also cracked down on Chinese restaurants that had “box” booths, which city fathers saw as hiding places for illicit activity.

In one raid, two white people were arrested with several Chinese, with all fined $25 a person — about $692 in today’s currency.

At one point, a local attorney tried to challenge the opium crackdown on legal grounds. Representing six people charged with smoking opium, attorney Henry J. Snively argued that the city had no legal authority to ban opium since the state prohibition on opium did not apply to third-class cities such as North Yakima.

But that argument did not carry weight with city officials. For them, eradicating opium use and trade was not a matter of law, but of civic pride. City leaders feared that people would not come to North Yakima to live and do business if they thought it was yet another den of licentiousness.

The drive to get rid of opium dens kicked up in 1909 in advance of President William Howard Taft’s visit to the city, in an effort to avoid any embarrassment during that occasion.

Along with the opium use, city officials discovered that smuggling was going on, with North Yakima serving as a distribution hub, a situation familiar to today’s drug-
enforcement agents.

A.J. Splawn, who participated in early cattle drives through the Valley, was elected mayor in 1911, partly on a platform to eradicate the opium dens and brothels.

Along with stores and hotels in China Town, opium dens were also found in a network of underground caves and tunnels in the area.

In time, opium was eradicated, and the tunnels wound up serving as hideouts for bootleggers and others. In time, the entrances to the tunnels were sealed off, and mostly lost to knowledge.

Local historian Ellen Allmendinger said only one known entry to the tunnels is known to exist today. The tunnel locations are kept secret because they are on private property, and after decades of disuse, are not likely to be safe.

It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Twitter: @donaldwmeyers.