Forty-two feet below street level in downtown Fort Worth is a forgotten tunnel.
The passageway once housed a tiny but extremely popular transit system. From 1963 to 2002, the M&O Subway ferried shoppers from a remote parking lot on the north end of downtown to Leonards Department Store and later the Tandy Center mall at RadioShack’s headquarters.
But the tunnel has been nearly untouched in the 13 years since the subway was shut down. Today, one entrance is buried under the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus, and the other end is secured by a padlocked chain-link fence that stretches across an archway in a limited-access high-rise office at 300 Throckmorton St.
“If I was going to shoot horror movies and have zombies, and they were coming out of the center of the Earth, that is exactly the type of scene I imagine they’d be living in down there,” said Ryan Johnson, asset manager for Spire Realty Group, which owns the tunnel. “I think even our maintenance people think it’s a little bit spooky and creepy, so they try to stay out.”
Scary or not, the roughly 1,000-foot tunnel tells an important story — the tale of Fort Worth in the 20th century as it grew from a cattle and railroad town into a modern retail and forward-thinking destination.
With RadioShack now mired in bankruptcy and hot summer weather on the way, the Star-Telegram longed for a chance to visit the cool confines of the old tunnel, to experience the spookiness and perhaps search for artifacts or other memorabilia beneath the slick structures of downtown.
So Johnson agreed to give the newspaper a one-hour tour on a recent morning, with members of the Leonard family tagging along. A few security guards also joined the team of urban explorers to look at the tunnel and help carry enough hand-held lighting to make the visit possible.
Left on its own since Aug. 30, 2002, the tunnel — which runs under Taylor Street — has briefly housed a colony of bats and an occasional cockroach. On its far north end, where the portal was buried by Tarrant County College construction, the tunnel makes a gentle dogleg west and ends with a concrete wall.
There, it is practically absent of light.
Perhaps the most surprising feature is a bizarre and beautiful form of natural art that has taken shape over the years along parts of the tunnel’s corrugated metal ceiling and concrete walls and flooring: stalactites and stalagmites, or at least mineral deposits resembling them.
Because the walls have constantly oozed condensation over the years, smooth layers of mineral deposits have gradually been left on them, creating formations that resemble off-white curtains.
For members of the Leonard family, visiting the M&O Subway tunnel was a chance to briefly relive the past — or for those too young to remember the famous department store, at least to get a taste of it.
Leonards was a one-stop shopping destination that stretched across several blocks downtown. In the days before American cities were dotted with Wal-Mart Supercenters and Super Targets, shoppers could go to Leonards for fashion, automotive parts, groceries, toys, farm feed and much more.
The store, which opened in 1918, was sold to Tandy Corp. in 1967. It continued to operate under the Leonards name until being sold to Dillard’s in 1974.
Lauren Leonard, 32, is the great-granddaughter of Obie Leonard, one of the famous Leonard brothers who founded the store nearly a century ago. She is now curator of the Leonards Museum at 200 Carroll St. in west Fort Worth, where visitors can check out hundreds of artifacts, newspaper clippings and filmed footage of the store.
For her, the tunnel visit was a chance to walk the rails, which still appear to be in good enough shape to support subway cars. She also got to throw a railroad switch, which was surprisingly well-oiled. An old-fashioned spouted oil can was still perched next to the turnout’s gears.
She and a cousin, Marty Leonard, daughter of founder Marvin Leonard, used a permanent marker to sign their names on the concrete wall at the north end of the tunnel.
“Remember the M&O,” Marty Leonard wrote, adding her signature and the date.
The Tandy Center was renovated after RadioShack moved its headquarters a few blocks north in 2005. Now, Spire Realty Group is seeking retail and office uses for the City Place development but has no plans for the tunnel, Johnson said.
Lauren Leonard said: “I think I got a little emotional when we reached the very end. I guess it was kind of symbolism — like it’s over and it’s not going to run anymore.”
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796