Tunnel City Brings Historic Perspective To Transgender Struggle
FOREST GROVE, Ore. — In the early 20th century Pacific Northwest, Harry Allen had earned a reputation with law enforcement. From bar fights to burglary to selling liquor illegally, trouble seemed to follow Allen wherever he went.
But what kept him in jail was not those crimes but the fact that Allen, formerly known as Nell Pickerell, was a transgender man living in turn-of-the-century America.
Gray Ashford ’17 chronicles the life of Allen in the play Tunnel City, which premiered at Pacific University’s Tom Miles Theater with four shows in October 2023.
The subject of the production is poignant for the current times as transgender people continue to struggle for acceptance and rights in the current high-charged political and social climate of the U.S.
“I think there is a narrative that transgender identity is a phenomenon of modern society, but that simply was not the case,” Ashford said. “This is one specific example of a person who lived over 100 years ago who was in a very similar position that a lot of transgender people find themselves in today.”
Tunnel City presents Allen’s life through the perspective of a jailhouse interview with Miriam Van Waters, a social activist who studied and fought for reform in the prison system. While focused on the treatment of women in prison, Ashford’s research revealed that Van Waters did at least one interview with Allen while she worked in the Pacific Northwest.
The play illustrates Allen coming to terms with his gender identity, with his mother encouraging him to embrace who he was from a young age. It follows a number of his legal episodes, broken relationships and the impossible challenges and struggles that being a transgender man posed in the early 1900s. Allen died in Seattle in 1922 at age 40.
It was the fact that Allen was transgender, and not his legal transgressions, that made him famous in the age of yellow journalism.
“He has the type of anti-hero, anti-villain kind of persona where what he was involved with was criminal even by modern standards,” Ashford said. “But they sidelined the criminal activity when they could be reporting about the fact that he was wearing pants.”
While a historic dramatization, the play’s namesake town really did exist. At the end of the 19th century, Tunnel City was located at the east end of the Great Northern Railway’s first Cascade Tunnel, which was completed in 1900. Largely lawless (the nearest sheriff was in Ellensburg, some 85 miles away), Tunnel City quickly developed a reputation with the New York World newspaper calling it the “wickedest place on earth.” Much of the town burned down in 1900 and quickly faded into history.
All of the characters in Tunnel City, including Allen, are based on real people, which Ashford said made writing the play easier.
“You have a baseline to follow,” Ashford said. “In that way, I had my cast already set up because they existed in real life. From there, you can connect the dots to construct a narrative to show the story that they created.”
Tunnel City is the first play that Ashford, a 2017 graduate of Pacific, has had produced. Currently employed as a production assistant with the theatre department, Ashford says it is an honor to not only watch the department bring “Tunnel City” to life but to also be involved with its production.
“It’s hard to find the words for it. It’s such a humbling, incredible honor,” Ashford said. “What I tell the director (Elliot Lorenc ’20) and the cast and (professor of theatre) Ellen Margolis all of the time is that they could not have crafted a better group of people to tell this story.
“From the first meeting I had, there was an enormous weight taken off of me as I understood that they understood the material, what the story is and who these characters are.”
An important task for a production that not only explores the historic context of transgender people in the U.S., but the continued struggle for transgender people in modern society.
“A lot of those headlines printed about Harry could almost be something that would be printed in certain news outlets in 2023,” Ashford said. “It’s a bittersweet thing to see that, obviously, we’ve made leaps and bounds in our society becoming more and more accepting, but in a lot of ways not much has changed at all.”
Pacific University is the only comprehensive university in Washington County, Oregon, serving more than 3,600 undergraduate, graduate and professional students in the arts and sciences, business, education, health professions and optometry.