STEPPING alone into the thick darkness of the underground rooms beneath the old Queens Hotel on the corner of Adelaide and Kent Sts tested my mettle.

I could only go so far alone.

"You wouldn't catch me going under there," the receptionist said as she handed me the key.

But intriguing tales of opium dens and secret tunnels that existed in the city of my ancestors in the late 1880s whetted an appetite that could only be staunched by research and getting a bit dirty.

Emboldened by the arrival of colleague Valerie Horton and with the assistance of a freshly downloaded iPhone spotlight app, we inched into the eerie silence of the dim musty rooms.

We descended tentatively, knowing Maryborough not only throbs with stories of opium dens and secret tunnels but also ghosts.

We soon ascertain that aside from a lone boot and a lantern - and of course, us - no living thing was present. Not even a rat.

However, in the 1990s, a nightclub occupied these windowless rooms that very much resemble the documented, secretive opium dens of the past century.

Local businessman Vince Rovere ramped up an already overactive imagination about his discovery when he ran a business in the Custom House Hotel.

"We were told that there was a tunnel that went from the river down near the wharf area up to the Custom House Hotel and it was used for moving goods."

He was also told that the tunnel had been bricked up.

"We didn't see any evidence of it when we were renovating but we did discover a cellar underneath the floor. The walls were made with old Maryborough brick. We were told it was used at some stage (late 19th Century) as an opium den but there is no definite evidence," he said.

Descending the steep ladder down into the underground cellar of the Custom House Hotel, I knew I was stepping back in time.

As I edged my way through a corridor of aged stone walls into a cave-like room, it was not hard to envisage through a thick haze of opium smoke, a clutch of silhouetted human beings slouching over gambling tables while just one floor above, at the bar, it was business as usual.

In the late 1890s, a Chronicle reporter who was accompanied by a policeman, filed this story about drug raids on opium dens.

"WE entered the tumbling-down four-roomed house at the immediate rear of the blacksmith's shop in Adelaide Street and adjoining premises of See Chung. In a back skillion room - some 10 feet or so square - amidst stifling heat, stenches as thick as a main sewer and opium fumes, sat around the table eight Chinese gamblers and a lanky white youth whose age could not be more than 17 years.

This room may have been as an opium den in 1800s.
This room may have been as an opium den in 1800s. Robyne Cuerel

Opium was a legal substance at the time. But only for the Chinese.

That didn't stop the drug being used

by anyone who wanted to get their hands on it. The combination of opium, gambling and prostitution kept the Maryborough police on their toes.

Opium became available in Maryborough following Chinese migration to the Gympie goldfields.

A statement from the Customs revenue dated September 1862 reveals: 43 pound/10 collected as a customs tax on wine, two pound on beer, 93 pound for tobacco, 61 pound for opium.

Just over one year later, the duty on opium had risen to 156 pound/11/6d.

Fortunately for the pioneering city, in 1905 the importation of the drug was banned. But sadly, due to the needs of the many opium addicts, smuggling became another crime keeping police busy for many years.

Local shipmaster Doc Dooley has heard more than once that the secret tunnels existed but were bricked off.

"They used to get the sly grog that came in from the ships and at that stage it used to come into the bottom level of the bond store and they'd pilfer it before it had to go up and be counted and royalties had to be paid. It was then distributed between major establishments that were using it.

"We all know the opium dens did exist. It's the same today - we all know we've got illegal drugs in this country.

"One of the former publicans that used to run the Custom House Hotel about 28 years ago said most cellars also doubled as a meeting place for gambling, opium and getting people from one point to another without being seen.

"I'm only going on what people are saying. They could have illegal gambling happening, whether they were smoking opium at the time ... who cares. But if the police turned up they just - whoosh - in different directions in tunnels, so by the time the coppers had a look there was nothing there. That's one of the stories and the legends."

Local historians who have researched the hotels in Maryborough said they have never found any evidence of a network of tunnels, aside from one that ran from Ululah and came out at Queens Park.

"Little boys used to go up as far as they could with their torches and hope it didn't rain."

The historians agree there is no shortage of "he said, she said" great stories but they believe it's predominantly urban myth.

But, hey - why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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