The remnants of tunnels under El Paso’s streets tell the origins of human smuggling
By Ken Hudnall on December 27, 2012
EL PASO – Some say stories of a maze of hidden tunnels beneath the city of El Paso are just myth while others swear that the underground pathways are real. Their existence has been the stuff of legend for over 150 years.
The hidden tunnels are said to run beneath the streets of El Paso and down into Mexico, some of them dug by smugglers, and others dating from before to the American Civil War. Some of these tunnels may just go from one house to another, but others are said to run for miles.
In a series of interviews conducted for the writing of Spirits of the Border: The History and Mystery of El Paso Del Norte, the late Tobias “Toby” Tovar, a math teacher at El Paso High School, discussed the section of these tunnels lying beneath El Paso High School.
According to Tovar, who died in 2010 of cancer, an extensive system of tunnels runs beneath El Paso High, though many of these tunnels are now blocked off as a result of the work done in the mid-1980s to install central air conditioning in the school. The building, designed by Trost & Trost Architects, was originally built without air conditioning. The design created by Trost was such that if the windows on the fourth floor and the outer doors were opened, the air would circulate, keeping the building cool in the hot Texas summers and warm in the winter time.
Tovar also said that there are tunnels that run from the basement to the Field House, a distance of approximately a third of a mile, but they have been blocked off because of alleged cave-ins. He said other tunnels lead to classrooms and that there were at least two classrooms in the basement that had been sealed off and forgotten and are now destroyed. To illustrate that the classrooms could be completely forgotten by school authorities, he said that in 1987 it had snowed in El Paso. Snow is such a rare occurrence in this part of the country that if any appreciable amount falls, traffic is a mess and the roads are very icy until the snow melts.
On this somewhat unusual day, snow had fallen heavily through the pre-dawn morning and by the time school was to start only a few teachers and students had been able to get to the school. The school made a mid-morning announcement that due to the weather, the school day was cancelled. Those teachers and students who had been able to make it to school were not allowed to leave due to extremely unsafe road conditions. With nothing else to do, the principal, a few students and several of the teachers, including Tovar, decided to explore the historic old building starting with the tunnels in the basement.
This was before the central air conditioning system had been installed and the basement area was a maze of narrow passages that seemed to run on forever. At one point, several of the teachers crawled through a small opening in the wall eventually coming to a brick wall that blocked the tunnel. The bricks were old and the cement between them was crumbling, but it was clear that some of the bricks had been added long after the surrounding brickwork. Curious, one of the teachers pushed on the newer bricks until some gave way, revealing a large dark cavity. Pushing a flashlight through the hole, they discovered a sealed off classroom.
The room was relatively small and contained antique desks of the type seen in the television show “Little House on the Prairie.” There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the classroom dated from the original construction of the building in 1916. The classroom was still set up with desks, text books and student notebooks lying open as if waiting for students.
“These classrooms were clearly very old and had been sealed up for a long time,” said Tovar. “I saw Baby Ruth candy bar wrappers on the floor from a time this product sold for 5-cents as well as numerous 5-cent coke bottles.”
In one of the student notebooks lying on a desk, they found, in addition to algebra notes and completed problems, a racy love letter from the owner of the book to a boy. The young lady is now a prominent woman in the El Paso community. There was a second sealed off classroom nearby, also ready to receive students. But, like the first one, it too was filled with dust and silence. Try as they might, the intrepid explorers were never able to discover why, with overcrowding a problem and space at a premium, two classrooms would be sealed off so fast that no time had been taken to clear them of debris, desks or books. Especially puzzling was the fact that not even the students had been given the opportunity to claim their notebooks, textbooks and other personal articles.
When officials were asked about these forgotten classrooms and other sealed off areas of this school at the El Paso Independent School District, no one had any information nor professed to even know these rooms existed. It remains a mystery to this day.
During this series of interviews in 2003, Mario Reyes was head custodian at El Paso High School. He confirmed that there are extensive tunnels in the basement, but he said that some are now closed off as a result of the work done when the air conditioning system was installed in the mid-1980s. He said that originally all heating and cooling went straight up from the basement to the rest of the floors so there are huge boilers and fans still in the basement area. Before a lot of the narrow tunnels were opened up, he said that he used to have to crawl through narrow passages to get to the pipes in order to make repairs.
“Mr. Pancos, a former head football coach, had his office in the basement and after the discovery of the forgotten rooms he used one of them as a weight room for the players. He had some experiences that convinced him to quit using the weight room,” Reyes said.
Reyes said he has seen the sealed off classrooms, but at the time he had seen them they were empty; all of the debris, textbooks, student notebooks and desks had been removed. He said that as far as he knew, no one had any idea why the classrooms were sealed.
Reyes said that he had also heard stories that the tunnels beneath El Paso High extend back underneath the mesa, but he does not believe this to be the case. He believes that the tunnels just ran underneath the old building. Of course, no one really knows everything that there is to know about this school: it hides its’ secrets well.
It is interesting to note that what appeared to be large archways have been sealed with unfinished concrete, Reyes said. These archways were on the side of the basement that faces the mesa. He also said that there were stories of tunnels running from the basement to the field house, but he does not believe that these tunnels exist either. However, Tovar, who has been at El Paso High School almost a decade longer than Mr. Reyes, confirmed that a tunnel to the field house does exist but it has been sealed off due to a partial cave-in.
Geoffrey R. Allen was a Sergeant in the El Paso Independent School District Police Department when interviewed in 2003. He was also one the few canine officers. On many occasions he was called to enter El Paso High School after dark in answer to an alarm.
“It was eerie to enter that huge old building in the middle of the night,” Allen said. “Our policy was that no single officer would go into the building in response to an alarm; it would either be two officers or an officer and a dog. A number of very strange things happened whenever I would be called upon to enter that building at night.
“One evening just after midnight, in answer to an alarm, I had entered the basement with my canine partner. As we started up to the first floor from the basement, we heard the school fight song, the sound of cheerleaders cheering, people screaming and all of the sounds you would associate with a pep-rally. These sounds were coming from the first floor auditorium,” he said.
“As I reached the first floor and looked down the hall toward the auditorium, I could see the lights were on. However, before I could investigate, my dog absolutely went berserk and fought me to get away. I found him hiding under my patrol car. When I finally investigated the auditorium a short time later, I found the doors locked, the lights out and the building deserted.”
Asked about the stories of tunnels said to go from the school basement underneath the mesa, Sergeant Allen confirmed he had heard many stories about hidden tunnels going from the basement to the mesa, but had said he had never explored that area, though he thought it was certainly a possibility.
For those willing to crawl beneath the low hanging central air duct work in the tunnels, entry into a large system said to connect El Paso High with a cavern along Murchison Street is possible. Shortly beyond the blockage by the air conditioners, the concrete passage becomes one dug out of the native soil. The walls are close and rough, the ceiling is low.
This passage is reported to connect with a larger tunnel system that is said to extend for approximately 900 miles. Some say these tunnels even connect El Paso with Juarez and may have been used for smuggling.
Other tunnels came into existence in response to political necessity, according to local historian Leon Metz. During the period from 1870-1910, stories constantly and steadily arose of tunnels under the Rio Grande, and tunnels meandering through various areas and regions, houses and businesses. According to researcher Nancy Farrar, one of the main reasons for these tunnels was to smuggle Chinese into the country.
The resorting to the digging of tunnels was brought about by the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law signed by Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. This law allowed the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration, a ban that was intended to last 10 years. This law was not repealed until passage of the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943. The law was passed to remedy to what many said was a problem caused by thousands of the Chinese immigrants who came to work on the railroad and search for fortunes in the gold fields of California.
In 1881 the railroad came to El Paso with over 1200 Chinese workers. Most of those workers were fired in El Paso when that section of the railroad was completed and large work gangs were no longer needed. This large influx of Chinese immigrants formed a permanent China Town which was located in a section bordered by Mills, Stanton, El Paso and Fourth streets. This area featured opium and gambling dens along with legitimate businesses such as markets, restaurants and laundries.
The Chinese Exclusion Act allowed those here to stay but prohibited new immigration and also banned those living here from returning if they left the country. The people of El Paso and Juarez reacted to these Draconian laws as they always do when something is banned. The largest smuggling ring of Chinese in the world was created in Juarez, said Metz. The trip to the United States began in Juarez for these illegal immigrants and ran through a tunnel from the river to a location near what is now the downtown library.
Many believe that there are numerous tunnels that run between El Paso and Juarez. But during a series of interviews prior to the publication of “Spirits of the Border: The History and Mystery of El Paso Del Norte,” Metz said that he found it hard to believe that the tunnels ran from El Paso to Juarez as it would have been necessary to dig underneath the Rio Grande River.
“That would have been a major undertaking,” Metz said. “It would have also meant digging beneath the Rio Grande and I just don’t think that can be done in secret.”
Andy Salcido was a former head custodian at El Paso High School in the 1990s. As was the custom at that time, he and his family had an apartment in the basement area of the High School.
“I encountered a lot of strange things in that school. I was aware of many stories regarding the extent of the tunnels that ran beneath the school. While it is certainly possible that the tunnels ran beneath the mesa, I personally never saw any sign of it,” he said.
The city’s most famous section of tunnel system is beneath The Turtle House apartment building at 516 Corto Way in Sunset Heights. Many current and former residents of that well known apartment building have reported entering the hidden area beneath the structure which seems to be a maze of rooms. No one has yet reported finding the actual tunnel that leads from the house but Tovar mentioned that it was well known that the Turtle House in El Paso was supposed to be connected to another similarly marked structure in Juarez.
As part of a series of books about the mysteries of the border, there is a new attempt being made to thoroughly explore the tunnels beneath the city. Perhaps the mystery of whether or not the tunnels run into Juarez will soon be solved once and for all.