According to a feature story written by Ken Hudnall for Borderzine, numerous places and streets in El Paso contain or contained underground tunnels.
The hidden tunnels are said to run within El Paso streets and into Mexico. Some tunnels were dug by smugglers. Other tunnels date back to years before the American Civil War. Some may run from one house to another while some 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. Many of the tunnels are blocked off as a result of the work done in the mid-1980s. Central air conditioning in the school was added. The building, designed by Trost & Trost Architects, was originally built without air conditioning. El Paso High is known as one of the most haunted and perhaps oldest schools in the U.S.
Other tunnels came into existence in response to political necessity, according to El Paso historian Leon Metz. During the period of 1870-1910, stories constantly arose of tunnels under the Rio Grande,various areas, houses and businesses. According to researcher Nancy Farrar, one of the main reasons for these tunnels was to smuggle Chinese into the country.
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 This law was not repealed until passage of the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943.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 what many said was a problem caused by thousands of 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 1,200 Chinese workers. Most of those workers were fired in El Paso when that section of the railroad was completed and they were no longer needed. This large influx of Chinese immigrants formed a permanent China Town 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. It also banned those living here from returning if they left the country. The people of El Paso and Juarez reacted. 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. It ran through a tunnel from the Rio Grande River to a location near El Paso’s current downtown library.
Borderzine features the work of journalism students from around the U.S. The program also hosts workshops and internships. University of Texas-El Paso students also contribute stories and photography to Borderzine. Check out the full story by clicking on the link below.