What is it about tunnels that capture the historical imagination? As an archaeologist I’ve encountered my fair share of tunnel legends—bootlegger tunnels exiting speakeasies, hidden under urban streetscapes, and some leading into old forts. Most have been apocryphal; or at least, I’ve yet to encounter any genuine secret tunnels that weren’t part of a water or power infrastructure system. That’s not to say secret tunnels don’t exist. There are, of course, the famous tunnels under Paris, created by centuries of quarrying the soft bedrock for building materials, and then later used for ossuaries. And I’ve seen tunnels built in times of war, like the ones under the Sarajevo airport constructed during Balkan War of the 1990s to move people and supplies in and out of a city under siege.
These and other similar places have become destinations for tourists and urban explorers in search of long-forgotten places. Tunnel legends are so common, in fact, that Atlas Obscura recently asked readers to send in reports of tunnels in their own communities. They received dozens of responses, some confirmed, but not surprisingly many were nothing more than myths.
Tunnels are dark, dank, dirty places. They are dangerous and scary. And yet, there is something powerfully compelling about them, particularly in their abandonment. Their very presence is like a barely audible whisper, a message in a bottle, a phantom resurrection. They materially embody collective planning, but it’s a collectivity underpinned by failure and abandonment, evoking nothing short of horror and despair. But let’s face it, we all love a good horror story, especially when coupled with a narrative that is rooted in a concealed past.
One of my personal favorite tunnel stories, and one that I would like nothing better than to confirm, is the tale of the Fort Anahuac tunnels in Anahuac, Texas. Fort Anahuac was a Mexican Fort completed on the Texas Coast in late 1831. It was built to control trade, immigration, commerce, and enforce Mexico’s civil laws (particularly those prohibiting slavery) in its northern territory. It took more than a year to build. When completed, it was an impressive edifice overlooking Trinity Bay, constructed of hand-made brick with three-foot foundation walls, diamond-shaped bastions on the bayward and landward sides, a courtyard, interior rooms for barracks and officer’s quarters, a corral, a kitchen, a magazine, a hospital, all surrounded by a light, probably low exterior wall.
There were also several exterior buildings that were used as customs and guard houses. According to local legend, there was an escape tunnel leading from the magazine out to the edge of a bluff overlooking the Trinity Bay.
All the effort at constructing the fort, however, was in vain. Within months of its completion, civilian residents nearby, most of whom where American immigrants from the lower south, clashed with the Mexican commander Juan Davis Bradburn, himself a Virginia native who fought in the Mexican Revolution against Spain. His orders were to begin enforcing civil laws, curtail further American immigration, collect import customs, check land titles, and inspect lawyers’ licenses. It should come as no surprise that Texan settlers, who had grown accustomed to limited government intervention from Spain and Mexico during the revolution years, resisted Bradburn’s efforts. The icy rapport between Bradburn and the civilian community reached a breaking point in the summer of 1832 when he imprisoned law partners Patrick Jack and William Barret Travis in the Anahuac gaol for repeated insubordination. American settlers from around the coast joined to march on the fort and demand their release. An armed uprising ensued, resulting in the relinquishment of the fort by the Mexican army. Three years later in 1835, when the Mexican Army tried to reoccupy the fort, a second armed uprising occurred, led by Travis himself, who no doubt saw the fort as a symbol of centralized oppression. The fort was again surrendered. These two uprisings were among the significant sparks that ignited the Texas Revolution of 1836. After its final abandonment in 1835, the fort fell to ruin, and local settlers scavenged the fort’s brick walls for building materials. Ruins were still visible from the Trinity bay in the 1860s, and even at late as 1938 when a county surveyor made notes on it. What remained was bulldozed and buried in 1946 when the county built a park at that location.
In 2002 and 2003, while working at Hicks & Company I had the opportunity to lead archaeological investigations at this site. Our crew documented buried intact remains of the fort foundation, its interior rooms, and two of the outbuildings. Many onlookers visited the site during our work. Inevitably, one of the first questions asked was: did you find the tunnels? Several older residents even came by with first hand reminiscences of playing in them as children, before the county collapsed them and sealed off the entrances. When we asked if they could locate them for us, they would wave vaguely at the bluff edge: Over there. Meanwhile, no one from Chambers County has found any official documentation of a tunnel under Fort Anahuac.
We never did find the tunnels. However, one of the more unexpected discoveries during our work was a network of buried brick drains. We uncovered three different arched drain segments, all constructed slightly differently, and all oriented in different directions.
The amount of human effort it took to make the bricks, dig into the dense subsoil, build, mortar, and rebury the drains is barely comprehensible, particularly considering how little time the fort was actually in use.
Similar types of drains have been found elsewhere in America. Archaeologists have unearthed brick drains of comparable size and morphology at many 17th-18th century plantation houses in Virginia and Maryland. The presumption is that the considerable workforce expenditure needed to build them was only possible using enslaved labor. Although Bradburn was a native Virginian who may have been familiar with drain construction of this type, he certainly did not have an enslaved labor force to help him. But he did have conscripted soldiers. Of course, the Spanish themselves were no strangers to big water infrastructure projects. Their elaborate acequia and drainage systems are still visible throughout Mexico, Texas, and the American southwest. In light of pre-industrial technology, the engineering and collective planning involved in their construction never ceases to amaze.
It’s hard not to wonder whether Anahuac’s brick drains, with their arched openings leading out to the bay were the elusive tunnels recalled by local residents. Although they would be much smaller than a true tunnel, they might have looked like one to child observing remains from an eroded bluff edge, especially if a hollow had been made under them.
This past month I was back at Anahuac doing a small archaeological survey in Fort Anahuac Park for the county historical commission. They plan to install monuments to commemorate the skirmishes of 1832 and 1835. We had visitors aplenty, and the big question on all of their minds was whether we’d found the tunnels. One older gentlemen again claimed to have played in them as a child and pointed to a place in the bluff north of the fort where the tunnel entrance supposedly was. He described the tunnel as being made of brick, and it extended back into the bluff for at least 100 feet, angling toward to the fort. That wasn’t part of our project area, so we did not have a chance to inspect the location with any rigor. Still, I couldn’t repress a tiny twinge of hope blossoming inside me. Perhaps the tunnels are real? I want to them to be real. Shoot! I also want magic to be real. But for now, they remain another elusive legend.