This story is from Texas Monthly’s archives. We have left it as it was originally published, without updating, to maintain a clear historical record. Read more here about our archive digitization project.

Forget the stars at night, even if they are big and bright. What’s really deep in the heart of Texas is what counts: oil and dirt and water and rock, the things that made our state what it is today. Texas’ strength, like that of its earliest settlers, comes from within: obviously our pioneering forebears didn’t come here to sniff the sage in bloom or prattle about the prairie sky. They came to till the soil and drill for oil and mine for minerals and dig for water, and that’s why wheat fields and derricks and smokestacks and sprawling cities mark Texas’ face today. But the underside of Texas remains underappreciated. In basements and caves and caskets and other underground lodgings are a multitude of things that make Texas grand and silly and unique: a sightless salamander, a mountain range, half a Cadillac, a subway, an oyster, even a president. All that and more is underneath Texas—so let’s get down to it.

Deep Dark Secrets: West Texas Way

Hoods of the Underworld

The hoods of ten fifties-era Cadillacs, thrust into a stretch of prairie off Route 66 near Amarillo, make up the underground half of a curious piece of art called Cadillac Ranch. The work was commissioned by another local curiosity, Stanley Marsh 3, who nicknamed it The Great American Dream.

A Lode Off Your Mine

Sometimes tales of gold don’t pan out, but you might hit pay dirt if you find one of Texas’ lost mines. Lost-mine lore in the state dates back to the seventeenth century and includes everything from greedy Spaniards and beautiful dance hall girls to murderers and ghosts. The best known of Texas’ lost-mine tales is that of the Lost San Saba Mine, which is truly Texas’ El Dorado. It is sometimes called the Bowie Mine, because of Jim Bowie’s long and fruitless search for it, or Las Iguanas Mine, after the lizard-size chunks of pure silver it supposedly produced.

That Sinking Feeling

Devil’s Sinkhole in Edwards County, discovered in 1876, is the largest in Texas. It has a sixty-foot-wide entrance and is at least three hundred feet deep. Because there are lakes on the bottom, however, no one has fully plumbed the sinkhole.

Hello, Ossifer

Archeologists have unearthed fragments of dinosaur bones around the state, though mainly in West Texas. These prehistoric artifacts are at least 60 million years old and belong to a fearsome array of monsters, including tyrannosaurs, brontosaurs, stegosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls, and triceratopses—a petrifying list.

Buddy Holly, rock ’n’ roll great, City of Lubbock Cemetery, Lubbock.

Hole Sweet Hole

Some people can’t tell their home from a hole in the ground. Underground houses are best suited to North and West Texas, where residents need protection from extremes of heat and cold as well as tornadoes and hailstorms. The big plus of earth-sheltered houses—advocates prefer that term—is energy conservation. A Lubbock home designed by civil engineering professor E. W. Kiesling of Texas Tech, has used only solar heating since it was built in 1980; the gas lines have never been turned on.

Hard Cache

Most Texas treasure was buried not on the lone prairie but in caves, rivers, or mountains, to give its owners a landmark to look for when they returned. None of them, of course, ever returned. Jim Bowie’s treasure includes anywhere from a mule load of silver to a cave full of gold and jewels; Santa Anna supposedly buried the pay chests of the Mexican Army; the emperor Maximilian of Mexico dispatched friends to hide a wagonload of loot in West Texas; Jean Lafitte is linked with tales of treasure-laden galleons sunk off Padre Island.

John Wesley Hardin, gunfighter and attorney. Concordia Cemetery, El Paso.

Down Time

As part of its four hundredth birthday celebration, El Paso buried a time capsule in downtown San Jacinto Plaza on New Year’s Eve, 1981. The capsule contains 45 items, including an 1881 silver dollar, Indian pottery made by the Tigua tribe, a local history by Dr. W. H. “Mr. History” Timmons, and the membership roster of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. The city plans to unearth the capsule in 2081.

Hi-Yo, Silver!

From 1885 to 1952, Texas produced 33 million troy ounces of silver, nearly all of it from one lucrative spot, the Presidio Mine near Shafter. Copper was mined during roughly the same period that silver was; more than a million pounds have been dug out of the Hazel Mine in Culberson County. Some gold has been mined in Texas, but not much. Another precious metal, uranium, occurs in Texas in Karnes County and other counties along the Coastal Plains.


According to state wildlife damage control specialists, a prairie dog town in Deaf Smith County covers at least 3000 acres and maybe as many as 5000. All told, the county contains 25,000 acres of prairie dog towns. According to legend, at one time there was a continuous prairie dog metropolis that stretched from Abilene to Amarillo and was a hundred miles wide, but it disappeared around 1900.

The Crude Earth

According to Department of Energy estimates, Texas’ total fuel reserves include 53.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 8.2 billion barrels of crude oil, and 12.7 billion tons of coal.

Pipe Realities

At the end of 1981 there were 83,000 miles of oil pipeline and twice that many miles of gas pipeline underneath Texas.

Midland Minnie, the first Folsom period human found in Texas, near Midland. She was buried some seven thousand years ago.

Charles Goodnight, cattle king, Goodnight Ranch, Goodnight.

Low Calories

In 1981, 1150 million pounds of sugar beets, 419 million pounds of onions, 275 million pounds of carrots, 238 million pounds of potatoes, and 74 million pounds of sweet potatoes grew in Texas soil. In addition, Texas’ 1981 production of peanuts totaled 400 million pounds. The majority of the state’s edible undergrowth comes from the High Plains and the Rio Grande Valley.

The Wild Blue Under

It’s hard to divine that there’s water under West Texas. The Ogallala Aquifer, the biggest in the state, underlies nearly the entire expanse of the High Plains and is, in fact, the area’s only usable water source. Because the Ogallala supplies more water to agriculture than any other aquifer, irrigation is depleting it, using up five million acre-feet a year. Unlike the Ogallala, the Edwards Aquifer in the Balcones Fault Zone is linked to a network of springs, including Comal Springs, Texas’ largest, and it is the only water source for San Antonio. More than forty species of fauna inhabit the aquifer, including four that are found nowhere else: the widemouthed blind catfish, the toothless blind catfish, the blind shrimp, and the blind salamander.

Hydrocarbons, Our Hydrocarbons

Texas had produced oil for 35 years before the boom hit in 1901 with the discovery of the Spindletop gusher south of Beaumont. Then came the discoveries of the Electra field, where there were eventually 8500 wells; the Ranger field, which increased the town’s population from 1000 to 30,000 in one year; the vast Hendricks and Yates fields, part of the rich Permian Basin; and, in 1930, the fabulous East Texas field. Five miles wide and 43 miles long, it was discovered by C. M. “Dad” Joiner, who hit it after drilling 17 dry holes close by. Soon the East Texas field was producing more than half of the state’s oil, but before long the Railroad Commission, by enforcing proration, lowered the boom. More recent discoveries include the Frio trend along the coast and the Austin chalk near Giddings.


Texas gardeners have a deep-rooted dislike for plants like Johnson grass, bull nettle, and greenbriar, all of which have a hidden system of hard, woody rhizomes, or underground stems, that make them almost impossible to kill. Frequently these plants have as many miles of roots and rhizomes below as branches and stems above. Similarly, there is often more to trees and crops than meets the eye; for example, the state tree, the pecan, may have roots going as deep as 20 feet, and alfalfa roots have grown to a depth of 32 feet in good soil.

Sights Unseen: North and Central Texas

Remember the Joske’s Subbasement!

Greater San Antonio has seven hundred sites that can, at very short notice, be converted into fallout shelters with enough room for 800,000 people—nearly all its population. The best, according to the city’s emergency management department, is the subbasement of the original Joske’s store downtown; its only drawback is that it holds a mere 150 people. There are also shelters on all five of the military bases in Bexar County. Most of San Antonio’s shelters are fallout shelters, not blast shelters. They would not sustain a direct hit from a nuclear bomb—which is a pity, since because of its military bases, San Antonio is a prime target.

Long Time No Sierra

A buried mountain range, the Ouachitas, lies underneath Texas all the way from Dallas to Uvalde; individual peaks begin outcropping in far West Texas. Why were the Ouachitas buried? It was not the Balcones Fault but the result of the earth’s collapsing and swallowing up the mountains 100 million years ago. The Ouachitas include some one-time volcanoes, such as Pilot Knob, which appears on the surface as a small mound five miles south of Austin.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States, Johnson family cemetery, LBJ Ranch.

The Hovel Office

If all goes badly, someday Denton could become the capital of the United States. It is the site of the largest of five regional Underground Control Centers across the U.S. that were established in the sixties to provide nukeproof shelters for government agencies. Built in 1962, the center has 4000 square feet aboveground and 52,000 square feet below. It is equipped with a 13.5-ton steel door, diesel power generators, a 1250-foot-deep water well, a laundry, a clinic, and enough food to feed 450 people for thirty days. Three hydraulically operated radio antennae, each 125 feet high, can be activated from silos to make contact with the other Underground Control Centers. The center also maintains, on microfilm, crucial files of various federal agencies. So much for a fresh start.

Bottle Zone

Dan’s Cellar in Austin is the largest wine cellar in the country, according to owner Dan “Dionysus” Stathos. It covers 15,000 square feet and contains 33,000 bottles of wine. Stathos, the buyer for the cellar, estimates the total value of his stock to be three quarters of a million dollars. Besides his business cellar, Stathos also has a private collection; proof of his discerning taste, it contains only 2300 bottles of wine, worth about $350,000.

Stephen F. Austin, father of Texas, State Cemetery, Austin.

Bone City

Dallas’s Restland Memorial Park has laid to rest any doubts about what kind of burial grounds Texans prefer. Restland, founded in 1925, was the state’s first memorial park. It uses flat headstones instead of upright tombstones, which makes the 310-acre site seem more like a park than a graveyard. Restland supervises some 3200 interments every year.

The Last Bowwow

Pet Memorial Park in Dallas—“for those who have lost a friend”—was established in 1955, which makes it the oldest pet cemetery in the Southwest. On its two acres are buried more than 3500 animals, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses, rabbits, a boa constrictor, a 92-year-old parrot, and a monkey in a mink coat. Most of the dear departed in the cemetery were native Texans; one dog, however, was flown in for burial by a wealthy Saudi Arabian, who must have had a pet peeve about his own country’s morticians.

Low, the Poor Engine

Fort Worth has not only Texas’ first and only subway but the world’s first and only private subway. Begun in 1962 by Leonard’s Department Store, the subway ran about one mile from a parking lot to the basement of the store downtown. It took seven minutes per run and carried as many as 10,000 people per day. When the Tandy Corporation bought Leonard’s in 1967, the subway was named the Tandy Subway, and Tandy Center still operates it today.

Origin of Specie

Inside the money vault of RepublicBank of Dallas is at least $10 million in cold cash. Workers in the vault, which is located on the first of six underground levels, handle about that much every week and always keep an equivalent amount in reserve. The cash represents deposits from such customers as grocery and department stores. At night the money—15 per cent of which is in coin—is locked behind the vault’s eighty-ton steel doors, so it’s sufficiently tough to get at the tender.

Bonnie Parker, desperado, Crown Hill Memorial Park, Dallas.

Mellow Journalism

The Rag, begun in Austin in 1966, was Texas’ top-notch underground newspaper during the heyday of Viet Nam, free love, and hard rock. The Rag‘s office was always buzzing, and occasionally the paper actually got some inside dope on UT. Its staff members were students or just Austin hangers-on; few were ever paid. Within two years of its beginning, the Rag‘s circulation was about six thousand, largely because of the paper’s tendency to print pictures of people in the nude but also because of Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic strip.

A Natural Low

Natural Bridge Caverns in Comal County are two and a quarter miles long and reach a depth of 180 feet. Discovered in 1960 by four spelunkers from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, the caverns contain an astonishing variety of formations, including one column fifty feet high. Natural Bridge Caverns, taken as a whole, form the largest cave in Texas.

The Enemy Within

Longhorn Cavern in Burnet County was used by bank and train robber Sam Bass as a hideout during his short career as an outlaw. The cavern’s main entrance is, in fact, called the Sam Bass entrance.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

In 1978 “Country Bill” White broke a long-standing world record by staying underground for 134 days in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Last year, at age 47, he bested his own record by remaining in a box buried six and a half feet deep for 141 days in Grand Prairie. White kept himself amused by watching TV—always a low form of entertainment.

Unnamed space creature, Aurora Cemetery, Aurora. Alleged to have fallen to earth in 1897 in a cigar-shaped spaceship that exploded on impact. Residents of the little farm community gave him a Christian burial.

Tomb of Tomes

Bookworms can burrow through 700,000 books in the Fort Worth Public Library’s subterranean building at 300 Taylor Street. The 125,000-square-foot structure, completed in 1978, was built underground to keep cooling costs low.


Ever in the vanguard of city planning, Dallas was the first Texas city to build an underground truck garage. The Bullington Street Truck Terminal, on the lower of two levels beneath Thanksgiving Square, covers 47,500 square feet and has 43 stalls to accommodate delivery trucks for nearby office buildings and the businesses on the upper underground walkway. Some 250 trucks use the terminal daily.

The Effluent Society

Clean-thinking Dallas, always big on sanitation, had 3539 miles of sewer lines and 3917 miles of water mains in use in January 1982. The city spends $10 million every year on sewers—just think of all that money going to waste.

Core Sample: South Texas

When You Drill, It Pours

Salt domes, which pepper the Gulf Coast, were the Texas petroleum industry’s greatest find. A dome, which appears on the surface as a gentle mound, is formed when a thick bed of salt is overlaid with various other deposits. Unlike many minerals, salt is mobile, and it reacts to the pressure by squeezing upward, leaving gaps that trap petroleum. The Spindletop field was produced through a salt dome; so were the Humble field and countless others since. In 1977 the federal government began using salt domes for oil storage. The Department of Energy maintains only one such storage site in Texas, at Bryan Mound near Freeport, where 81 million barrels of oil are stored in fourteen different caverns.

The Coral of the Story

The most spectacular coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico are the Flower Gardens, 110 miles east of Galveston. Texas’ biggest coral reefs, however, are high and dry. They are under the High Plains from Abilene to Lubbock to Amarillo. Some, like the Canyon reef in Scurry County, are the source of enormous oil deposits.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, father of the blues, Wortham Negro Cemetery, Wortham.

Walter Williams, last Confederate veteran, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Franklin. Died in 1959 at age 117.

Love of Tunnel

If you’re going to Houston, here’s how to get down. Just below downtown are 3.1 miles of tunnels connecting such major buildings as 1100 Milam, One Shell Plaza, Two Shell Plaza, Pennzoil Place, and Texas Commerce Tower. The network began in 1951 with the Niels Esperson Building tunnel to the Houston Club, and today Houston has more underground walkways than any other U.S. city. Because there are no maps of the network inside the tunnels, it’s easy to get lost, and an innocent pedestrian may enter one building and wander around for half an hour before finding the right exit.

Losing Site of Priorities

In 1929 two workers from the hamlet of Malakoff in Henderson County, 25 miles east of Corsicana, found a prehistoric stone head in a gravel pit near Cedar Creek. The primitively carved head weighed 98 pounds and was sixteen inches high. In 1935 an amateur headhunter found a second, slightly smaller stone, and four years later a team funded by UT and the federal Works Progress Administration unearthed a third, much larger one. No one, however, preserved the area as an archeological site. As a result it was lost when, in 1967, the Tarrant County Water Control and Improvement District Number One opened the newly completed Cedar Creek Reservoir and flooded the area.

Sam Houston, president and governor of Texas, Oakwood Cemetery, Huntsville.

A Pierless Building

Ever wonder what holds up an enormous building like the 75-story Texas Commerce Tower? The answer is, nothing; the only thing that holds it in the ground is its own weight. Geotechnical engineers call such a foundation—or the absence thereof—a fully or partially compensated foundation. Briefly, that means that the weight of the soil and water excavated from a site equals, or nearly equals, the weight of the building going in. No piles are driven, no piers installed. But fears that such a building might sink are, well, unfounded.

The Big Heap

Four hundred acres of Harris County are really trashed out. Northeast of Houston on the Old Beaumont Highway is the only landfill used by the City of Houston, owned by Browning-Ferris Industries, a private waste-disposal company. Houston deep-sixes 1250 tons of garbage into it every day, but that’s only a fifth of the daily total; Browning-Ferris dumps 5050 tons more.

Low Highbrow

The Houston Museum of Fine Arts has relegated its entire Frederic Remington collection to its basement gallery. Keeping it company are the museum’s collections of pre-Columbian, American Indian, African, and Pacific island art. Altogether there are 472 underground objets d’art.

They’re the Pits

Lots of places in Texas could really get under your skin. At last count, Texas had 581 chemical dumps that were classified as hazardous waste sites by the Environmental Protection Agency. A third of them were in Harris County alone, including the infamous French’s Pit, which during a 1973 flood dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the San Jacinto River. Some smaller cities are also in bad shape; for example, Freeport (population: 13,500) has 12 dumps all to itself.

James Briton Bailey, Bailey’s Prairie, Brazoria County. An early eccentric; left orders that he was to be buried upright, with his rifle in his arms and a jug of liquor at his side.

Cooling Their Heels

What’s underneath Ben Taub Hospital? Remains to be seen. The Harris County morgue, the state’s largest and the nation’s fourth largest, has been in the city hospital’s basement for nineteen years. Last year 8169 bodies dead of natural or unnatural causes rolled through its portals on their final gurneys. Most cities build morgues aboveground these days, for one good reason: odors travel upward.

Bay of Virility

In Galveston, the world is your oyster. Galveston Bay is the spawning ground for Texas’ biggest oyster reefs; sometimes a single bed covers as much as 1600 acres. In 1981 Texas produced 1.5 million pounds of raw oysters. Oyster shells are used in cement production and road surface work.

Deep Voice

Southwestern Bell maintains 22,000 miles of underground telephone cable in Houston, to which more than 10,000 manhole covers lead.

Big Inch, Little Inch

Give the feds an inch, and they’ll take 3190 miles. With the onset of World War II, the U.S. government started building the Big Inch pipeline, 24 inches in diameter, to speed up the delivery of Texas oil to Eastern refineries. Big Inch was begun at Longview in August 1942 and by the end of the next year stretched 1476 miles to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Six pumping stations gave the line a daily capacity of 200,000 barrels of oil. Little Inch, a 20-inch pipeline, was built from Beaumont to Linden, New Jersey, the same year. It carried another 175,000 barrels a day and covered 1714 miles. Both Big Inch and Little Inch are still operating today.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Texas’ greatest athlete, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Beaumont.

Dan Blocker, a.k.a. Hoss Cartwright, Woodmen Cemetery, DeKalb.

Wreck and Ruin

Deep in the deep of Texas is part of the New Spain fleet of 1554—three Spanish ships that sank half a mile off Padre Island. In 1972 state archeologists began retrieving artifacts from one of the ships, the San Esteban; the haul included silver coins and bullion. Treasure hunters damaged a second ship while rifling it. The New Spain fleet is thought to be the oldest verified shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere.


The parking garage beneath Greenway Plaza, run by Century Development Corporation of Houston, is the largest underground parking garage in the world. It holds just over six thousand cars in a space roughly one-quarter mile long and one-eighth mile wide. The garage was built in segments from 1969 to 1974 and provides parking for hotel guests, shoppers, and sports fans.

Meanwhile, Down at the Antipode

If you drill straight through Texas—through water and rock and oil and dirt and everything else, right on to the other side—you’ll end up not in China but in the middle of the Indian Ocean, between Australia and the little French islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul. Now there’s an argument for staying on top of things.