Last year Local 4 News took you under the streets and into the Rock Island underground. We showed you the hidden Quad City stories of prohibition, gambling, and prostitution.
But those stories of the underground just skim the surface. Across the river in Davenport, a series of old speakeasies still lie in the shadows to this day.
Above ground, you’ll hear the sounds of development. But the deeper you go, the only sound is silence.
“I didn’t really sense the level of the speakeasies that we would have,” says President of Big Dog Construction Shawn Larson.
Larson’s company specializes in remodeling old buildings. But along the way, he’s been forced to become something of a history expert.
Inside the century old United Cigar building on Main Street, we start with a trip down the stairs.
“You could envision the people in the basement having their drink,” says Larson.
As you travel through endless halls, it’s hard to grasp where you are. But one speakeasy sits roughly below ‘Me and Billy’ downtown. For Larson, there’s always a dead giveaway.
Larson quickly pointed out what appears to be a trap door.
“We’re lucky enough to have the stairway intact,” says Larson.
That trap door was blocked and cemented over decades ago. But the old communication system remains to this day.
“This right here is how they would have communicated,” says Larson. “There’s a series of switches here that would have led to some lighting up above us that would have been below a counter.”
Larson’s construction expertise mixes with his knowledge of the history. He easily dates when certain walls were added to hide the speakeasies. It’s common to find false walls inside the space.
For documentation or historical proof of that era, all you have to do is look across Main Street.
Inside the Davenport Library, we fittingly head underground again to the Special Collections Department.
“These are a bunch of different photographs from our collection,” says Special Collections Supervisor Jessica Mirasol.
Photos and newspaper clippings from prohibition show how speakeasies honeycombed Davenport streets.
“There were quite a few speakeasies actually,” says Mirasol.
Local papers support that story with headlines including “2,000 gallons seized,” “record crime increases,” and “busy year for prohibition officer.” Those crimes still live today in black and white.
The library also has original police blotters from the 20’s and 30’s on file.
“I think it’s interesting that there is a lot of intoxication,” says Mirasol. “Obviously through prohibition.”
It’s a theme that’s no surprise to Larson, as he continues to find speakeasy upon speakeasy.
Moving on to the Davenport Hotel, built in 1907, Larson points out another example.
Inside, more remnants of a past era including false walls or original architectural elements.
“I got chills,” says Larson. “You could just feel the history.”
Larson and Big Dog Construction has stumbled across speakeasies since the early 90’s. And even when the job is to build something new, it makes him stop and think about the old
“We see history,” says Larson. “We acknowledge history. To me the main basis of history is that we don’t repeat the wrong things.”
But they’ll repeatedly find these underground speakeasies as long as there’s an old building to be restored. And history to be uncovered.