The secrets beneath the streets of Sunset Heights

Sunset Heights tunnels

It’s a historic neighborhood that sits above downtown El Paso - a place with a clear view of Ciudad Juarez. It’s Sunset Heights, and the streets here have secrets.

It's long been rumored that a several underground tunnels snake their way under these streets, connecting house to house.

"I don’t know if they’ve identified tunnels that go long distances, but different houses definitely have spaces underneath them that nobody has looked at for many years that go off into the darkness,” said Sito Negron, the president of the Sunset Heights Neighborhood Association.

My search for these mysterious tunnels brings me to an old apartment building called the Turtle House. Some proof of this alleged tunnel network can be found in the basement of that building.

Underneath the Turtle House, you will come upon an elaborate underground chamber illuminated by skylights. It connects to a series of rooms, rooms that feed into several passageways. And there they are, entrances to tunnels that have been sealed off for decades.

"This was a huge engineering undertaking,” said Doug Yost, a longtime resident of Sunset Heights and something of an expert on the exceptional architecture that's scattered all over this neighborhood. “No one would start to build a tunnel like this that so labor and material intensive and have it go out in three different directions without it connecting to something significant."

“The basement was built first, in 1900,” said Stefanie Uribarri, who is with Pearl Properties, the local real estate company that owns the Turtle House. “There’s a million urban legends about this building.”

Uribarri points to the elaborate brickwork and bizarre features of this strange basement.

“This is a working fireplace. So if you look there, you can see that this is also a vaulted area," she said. “If you look at the tunnels underneath, you’ll notice that the vaulted ceilings continue in these little tiny tunnels that are very low on the floor. So that implies that there are very low on the floor, so that implies that there are additional rooms on the other side of the wall.”

So why would anyone build a series of tunnels underneath Sunset Heights? For a possible explanation, we need to go back above ground.

“So this is the turtle sculpture that’s made out of brick,” said Uribarri, referencing a turtle on an exterior wall of the building.

“And the turtle identifies it as a safe haven in the Chinese culture," said Yost.

The significance of a Chinese symbol speaks to an era when this building was constructed. In 1882, the U.S. Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the first major law to ban a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S. On top of that, the thousands of Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad weren't allowed to return to the U.S. According to historians, some of them ended up in Juarez.

“This is PhD thesis worthy, and it’s too interesting a story to ignore,” said Yost.

“This arched ceiling is supported with a railroad tie and it gives real credence to the theory that this was perhaps used by Chinese immigrants who were entering the country illegally after the Chinese Exclusion Act," said Uribarri.

So it's possible that this basement and the tunnels could have been used by undocumented Chinese immigrants who were smuggled in from Juarez then stashed at houses in Sunset Heights.

“Once the Chinese that were working on the railroad left, it was very difficult for them to come back and the Juarez to El Paso corridor was one of the easier ones,” said Yost.

Others have speculated that maybe the tunnels were used by Pancho Villa to stash weapons or munitions. Villa lived in Sunset Heights at around the time of the Mexican Revolution, but none of those stories have ever been confirmed.

“The Pancho Villa story, who knows if it’s true or not. What we’re pretty sure is true is the story about the Chinese.”

The truth of the matter is no one knows with certainty what these tunnels were constructed and that’s why Yost believes that more study is needed.

"There are a lot of fragments of an incomplete story that could really come together if we could get into the tunnels. And do some work.”

So for now, the truth behind these tunnels is buried, sealed shut under a considerable layer of mystery.

“There are a lot of people that know something. They might not know who to tell or they might not know that anyone is interested. But somebody knows something about these.”

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