El Paso's secret tunnels explored

KTSM
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POSTED: Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 9:45pm

UPDATED: Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 10:04pm

From high atop Scenic Drive the city is spread out before you, but there's more to El Paso than what meets the eye. It turns out this city is full of secrets, many of them right beneath our feet.

Ken Hudnall is an El Paso historian and author, and perhaps the region's leading expert on tunnels. He claims El Paso once had upwards of 900 miles of secret pathways, most of which date back to the 1880's.

"I've had some tell me they've been out to Horizon City, up into the Franklins. The gentleman who showed me the tunnel area has been into Mexico a number of times," said Hudnall.

Most have since been destroyed or filled in, but you can still find several entrances in some of the city's older buildings.

"Over half the buildings downtown are connected. They've got openings even the owners don't know about," said Hudnall.

One of the more notable entrances is located beneath the Turtle House Apartments, in what is now Sunset Heights.

"The legend says there's a house on the other side of the river that also has the very unique turtle on the side and the tunnel went to there," said Hudnall.

Hudnall claims many of the tunnels were initially built to smuggle chinese immigrants into the United States from Mexico, but as time went on that changed, the tunnels later used to transport alcohol during prohibition and eventually drugs and Mexican immigrants.

Today many are fascinated by the tunnels' existence.

Tunnel tours beneath El Paso High, help fund everything from graduations and proms to college scholarships, and after a trip beneath the 97 year old building it's easy to see why they're so popular.

"The school's sub-basement was once used as a morgue to store bodies during the 1918 spanish flu.

"That's a true story. That's not a legend," said Linda Troncoso, with the El Paso High School Alumni Association.

At least one former teacher also claims to have found an entire classroom hidden behind a wall of cinder blocks.

"He said he could just seen books and pencils and everything stacked up. It was just like a fire drill and the students were gone," described Troncoso.

As for the tunnels themselves, four of them once departed from the basement, while the other two left school grounds.

"Tunnels were very active at the beginning of the century. That's how Pancho Villa travelled from Juarez to the city. There were tunnels to Sunset to Ysletta to downtown El Paso," said Troncoso.

There are even rumors of an underground city.

"We're talking about homes that would be every bit as beautiful as anything above ground," said Hudnall.

But not everyone is convinced the tunnel's exist.

Customs and Border Protection only knows of one. It was found three years ago and ran under the Rio Grande right near the Bridge of the Americas.

"It was a small tunnel, two by two. It was 130 feet from Mexico all the way to the United States," said Luis Bustamante with CBP.

That tunnel has since been filled in with concrete. As far as how many others exist, depends on who you talk to.

Customs and Border Protection officers say El Paso does have an elaborate underground storm drainage system used to carry runoff to the Rio Grande, and 20 people have been found and arrested in those drains this year alone, but whether those storm drains actually connect to tunnels is open for debate.

"It's a mystery to some extent, yes," said Hudnall.

A mystery hidden right beneath our feet.

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