The History Behind Fort Worth's Underground Tunnels

Bloodied and shackled, Tom Lee Young hid out in a tunnel beneath the Fort Worth County Jail in May of 1913, veiled in a damp blanket of darkness while an angry lynch mob frantically searched for him in the jail above. Deputies wanted to ensure he made it to trial, so they surrounded him as they waited out the mob. Young, an infamous gambler, thief and murderer, had just gone on a shooting rampage in Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre, shooting seven victims with his double-barrel shotgun, including police officer John Ogletree. Thousands of men rioted outside the jail, insisting that Young be handed over. After probing the facility from top to bottom with ropes in hand, the mob was satisfied that the criminal was no longer there and dissipated after a 12-hour standoff.

Tunnel systems, such as the one that allowed Young and the deputies to conceal themselves from the dangerous vigilantes, are embedded in Fort Worth’s history. An underground world once allowed for quick escapes, the transfer of prisoners or patients, safe and convenient travel for pedestrians and a means for moving livestock.

Not all of the city’s subterranean world could be unearthed in the next few pages. The mystery of what lies beneath the hustle and buzz of Fort Worth’s streets keeps the curious minds of locals and historians digging for more answers.

Construction of the M&O Subway tunnel. Photo courtesy of Leonard’s Department Store Museum.

• M&O Subway Tunnel. Marvin Leonard opened his grocery store in 1918. Soon he was joined by his brother, Obis, and the store took over six blocks of downtown Fort Worth. A cross between today’s superstore and a shopping mall, Leonard’s Department Store charmed locals through the ’70s.   

The M&O Subway, a short .7-mile line, was 40 feet below ground level and passed under Belknap, Weatherford and First streets. It was the only privately owned subway line in the United States. An entrance to the tunnel was west of Taylor and is now covered by the TCC Trinity River Campus.

John Roberts, chairman of Historic Fort Worth Inc., which is dedicated to preserving the city’s unique historic identity, is also an architect with Halbach-Dietz Architects. “Leonard’s Department Store had several underground connections in their vast empire at the north end of downtown. This includes the subway tunnel for the M&O,” he says. “The store also had an underground connection between their original building located on the block bounded by First, Houston, Second and Throckmorton streets (currently the west block of Renaissance Worthington Hotel) and their Home Store, located, at the time, on the block bounded by First, Throckmorton, Second and Taylor streets.”

The subway tunnel ended under Taylor Street at the Home Store, but it was later extended to the library when the Tandy Center and library were built. The tunnels under Taylor and Throckmorton streets are the only remnants that remain except for the artifacts housed at the Leonard’s Department Store Museum, at 200 Carroll St., and a recently refurbished M&O Subway car that sits in the lobby of One City Place (formerly Tandy Center).

The Tandy Corporation purchased the department store, its parking lots and the subway in 1967. The corporation’s headquarters, the Tandy Center, was built on the site in 1974. Although the original store was demolished, Tandy kept the subway that primarily served patrons visiting the mall at the bottom of the building. While the Tandy Center Subway ceased operation in 2002, the cavernous tunnel remains.

Burnett Plaza

• Burnett Plaza Tunnel. Burnett Plaza, built in 1983, stands at the former site of the Medical Arts Building at the southwest edge of Fort Worth’s Central Business District. At 567 feet, it is the city’s tallest building. The 40-story property overlooking Burnett Park encompasses two city blocks with Cherry Street bisecting the building and its garage to the west.

At one time there were several passageways beneath the city built primarily for pedestrians or employees going from one building to another across the street.

The north side of Burnett Plaza features the 50-foot Man With a Briefcase sculpture and offers a concourse-level pedestrian tunnel for tenant access to a restaurant, retail shops and the parking garage. Burnett Plaza tunnel connects to where the Bank of America building now sits at 500 West Seventh St. A glass skylight at the intersection of Cherry Street and West 7th marks the turning point and provides lighting for the underground passage.

With several work projects in the building, Roberts is familiar with the walkway and attests to its convenience. He says side tunnels for the purpose of maintenance lead under Burnett Park as well.

• Throckmorton Tunnel. A tunnel running beneath Throckmorton Street was approximately 6 feet high and 5 feet wide and contained pipes that provided heating and cooling in the ’30s. It connected the city jail and former home of the Fort Worth Police Department (now the A.D. Marshall Public Safety Courts Building) with the old public library.

Located nearby was Fort Worth’s first park, dating back to 1873. Hyde Park at Ninth Street and Throckmorton was expanded in 2010. The transit plaza’s grand opening occurred in February 2011. During construction of the Hyde Park Transit Plaza, workers uncovered the north end of the old tunnel when a wheel on a piece of equipment got stuck.

It has never been proven that it was used for anything other than a utility tunnel, although historians speculate it had far more important uses. Local historian and Ret. Fort Worth Police Department Sgt. Kevin Foster says the existence of the tunnel is evidence of Fort Worth’s rowdy past. “It wasn’t the nice, quiet city people may think it was…The reason for the tunnels, as best I can figure, was because of the 20th century history of jail mobs and violence…They [tunnels] have prevented prisoner lynchings and facilitated escapes. I can think of at least two occasions where they decided not to use the tunnels, and those prisoners were killed by angry mobs.”

Foster thinks the underground passageway was also a possible escape route for officers or prisoners. “One end of the tunnel came behind the library’s circulation desk, which could be accessed through a closet,” he says.

The Main Street Tunnel ran beneath what is now the downtown Hilton.

• Main Street Tunnel. Established in 1873 by Thomas Tidball and John Wilson, Fort Worth National Bank was one of the first private banks in the city and served as a primary financial institution in building the community.

Over the years, the bank had buildings at Main and First streets, Seventh and Main streets, and Fifth and Throckmorton streets. Only accessible via the bank’s lower level, a tunnel ran beneath the ballroom of the Hotel Texas (now the Hilton Fort Worth) and connected the bank and its installment loan department. It also housed the bank’s historical gallery, where bank executive Reed Sass exhibited a collection of Fort Worth photos and artifacts.

Roberts remembers that the tunnel did exist, but he says, “I’m not sure if it was closed off or filled in.” In the mid-’70s, the bank was sold and became known as Texas American Bancshares. It then was Team Bank in the ’80s and became Bank One in 1995.

The East Exchange Avenue tunnel in the Fort Worth Stockyards that connected the holding pens with the Armour and Swift processing plants.

• East Exchange Avenue Tunnel. Greenleif Simpson bought the Union Stockyards in 1893 at the price of $133,333 and changed the name to the Fort Worth Stockyards Company. Simpson asked other investors to join him, including Louville V. Niles, whose business was meatpacking. It was quickly discovered that instead of shipping the cattle off to other markets to be processed, it would be advantageous to build meat packing plants nearby so they could keep the business in the city. Investors put in the works a plan to attract major packers to Fort Worth. Around 1900 they had convinced both Armour & Co. and Swift & Co. to build plants on the outer edge of the Stockyards.

Armour and Swift tossed a coin to determine who would get which tract of land. Armour won the toss and chose the northern site. Construction started in 1902. As one of the largest hog and sheep marketing centers in the South, the Fort Worth Stockyards became known as “The Wall Street of the West.”

Dena Newell, director of marketing for Stockyards Heritage, says, “The tunnel that runs north and south beneath East Exchange dates back to 1903 and was used at one time to guide pigs and sheep to and fro without impeding traffic above.

“The underground passageway has poured concrete walls and is adorned with terracotta tile floors. Upwards of 10,000 animals per day navigated the underpass to the processing plants — north to Armour and south to Swift — for slaughter and packing, and it was regular practice to first send a goat, dubbed the ‘Judas goat,’ to guide the sheep through the tunnel.”

• Hospital District Tunnels. Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital (formerly Harris Hospital) was named after a surgeon, Dr. Charles Houston Harris, who in 1904 moved his practice from the West Texas town of Moran to Fort Worth. The building opened at 1300 West Cannon St. on March 3, 1930, and had 146 beds and two floors for patients. Years later it expanded to an eight-story building. Harris also had Fort Worth’s first intensive care unit.

Tunnels connected Texas Health Fort Worth to Cook Children’s Medical Center (formerly known as Fort Worth Children’s Hospital). Lillie Biggins, Texas Health Fort Worth president, says, “The underground passage connected the two hospitals by way of the old Harris Hall. Not only that, a tunnel also connected Texas Health Fort Worth to the old Easter Seals building. At one point in time, all surgical cases for both facilities were conducted at Texas Health Fort Worth. The tunnel closed in 2001 after the opening of Texas Health Fort Worth’s David E. Bloxom, Sr. Tower. Despite the tunnel’s closure, the hospitals remain connected above ground with the help of a sky bridge.”

Biggins shares that the tunnel that led to the old Easter Seals building closed soon after Cook Children’s added a new physical plant onto its campus a few years ago.

Labor Day parade in front of Tarrant County Jail, Fort Worth, ca. 1897. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.

• Belknap Tunnel. In 1856 the only county jail that existed was a one-room wooden structure at the corner of Jones and Belknap streets. The first permanent jail was built in Fort Worth in 1884 directly behind the old county courthouse on Belknap Street. It was three stories high with a basement. An underground tunnel connected the county jail and the courthouse basements and was used to take prisoners to trial without exposing them to the public or an unsecured area.

Roberts says, “The use of the tunnels is a more secure way for moving inmates. No one in the public can see who is coming or going, and it reduces the chances of a deputy or prisoner getting shot.”

Due to an overwhelming influx of inmates, Tarrant County grew to four jail facilities by 1991. The second of those was the jail built in 1918 at 200 West Belknap Street. Escapes, suicides and other problems escalated.

On multiple occasions, citizens of Tarrant County stormed the jail attempting to lynch prisoners. In another instance, a convicted murderer, who was a former police officer with knowledge of the tunnel, walked down into the underground corridor, out of the courthouse and was never found. With 25 escapes in 34 years, the jail earned the reputation as an easy escape facility.

In 1963 Tarrant County moved its office to the new Tarrant County Jail, and the City of Fort Worth leased a portion of the 200 West Belknap building from Tarrant County for jail space, municipal courts and offices. Today the building is home to the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. 

“There is no tunnel in that area now,” says David Phillips, Tarrant County facilities management director. “As far as we can tell, it has been filled and blocked off at the property line.”

However, a similar tunnel does exist today. “Back in 1990, we constructed a tunnel to connect the jails and the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center. It is an operating tunnel which is used to move hundreds of inmates back and forth to court on a daily basis,” says Phillips.