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Hidden Histories: Selby Smelting Robbery Tunnels

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Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed Contributor Alex Bevk highlights a San Francisco location with a secret past. Maybe it’s no longer there, maybe it’s been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in SF history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

East side of Montgomery Street between California and Sacramento Streets, 1865 (Selby Smelting Building below arrow) [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Despite it's cosmopolitan status today, in the early days San Francisco was a small port town, full of rowdy characters. The Gold Rush brought a huge influx of wealth to the merchants and businessmen of the city capitalizing on the ambitious and hopeful 49ers. By 1906, the city was chock full of money and wealth, and robberies were not uncommon. Nonetheless, people were still shocked when in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, a tunnel was revealed leading to a vault at the Selby Smelting Company at 416 Montgomery Street.

After the 1906 Earthquake, workmen were reconstructing the Selby Smelting Co. office building on Montgomery Street between Sacramento and California. While laying concrete in the basement, the floor caved in revealing a secret tunnel leading from a boarding house to the office building. The attempted robbers had removed bricks from a wall that divided the two buildings, creating a tunnel that was wide enough for a man to crawl through on his hands and knees.

Diagram from the San Francisco Call newspaper illustrating the 1906 tunnel location [Photo: California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside]

The tunnel ended about 45 feet from the vault wall, apparently thwarted by the 1906 disaster. Supposedly the tunnel was only a few days work away from reaching the vault, which held thousands of dollars worth of gold bullion. The building was demolished by 1959 to make way for what is now the Wells Fargo History Museum.

The Selby Smelting Company stored most of its gold on the office building site after a successful robbery at their plant in Port Costa (near Martinez) in 1901. In that robbery, a tunnel was also dug into the vault by former employee John Winters, and he got away with $285,000 in gold and hid it under water in the bay. He was captured and arrested, and served seven years in jail.

San Francisco Call article with photos from 1901 Selby Smelting Plant robbery [Photo: California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside]

Many thanks to Curbed reader Anthony for the tip.
· Bold Attempt Is Made to Rob Vault in an Assay Office [California Digital Newspaper Collection]
· More than a quarter of a million dollars is stolen from the vaults of Selby Smelting Works at Crockett [California Digital Newspaper Collection]
· Celebrated criminal cases of America [Google Books]