1924: Santa Fe tunnels
System fed downtown’s fashion industry, transported troops
07/03/2002 By BRIAN ANDERSON / Dallas Web Staff Buried beneath the bustling streets of downtown Dallas, a labyrinth of hidden history lies in the darkness.
Constructed in 1924, the railroad tunnels beneath the former Santa Fe Freight Terminal carried merchandise to a fledgling fashion district and soldiers to their duty in World War II.
It’s rumored that a river of bootlegged booze once flowed through the caverns during the days of prohibition.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” laughed Bob LaPrelle, executive director of the Age of Steam Railroad Museum at Fair Park. “I do know the Santa Fe Railroad in those days was known for parties.”
The tunnels have long been silent. The rusty rails have mostly disappeared behind brick walls and ribbons of concrete. But the lore surrounding the former train complex still packs a full head of steam.
“They are kind of intriguing and interesting,” Mr. LaPrelle said, noting that the tunnels still prompt occasional inquiries from local railroad buffs.
Four buildings on three adjacent city blocks – bound by Young, Commerce, Griffin and Field streets – made up the original complex that centralized the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad’s transfer and warehousing operations in downtown Dallas.
Only three buildings remain today: Santa Fe Building I now houses offices for the federal government; Santa Fe Lofts, formerly known as the Garment Center, now contains about 200 apartment units; and a single abandoned warehouse at the complex’s southernmost point lies across from the Dallas City Hall.
The Ingram Freezer Building, the third in the north-south building chain, was demolished in 1988. A parking lot has taken its place.
The complex buildings were linked by a subterranean rail tunnel meant to relieve downtown train congestion.
“The tunnels and the Santa Fe facility resulted from the restrictions for building downtown,” Mr. LaPrelle said, explaining that a web of tracks had come to choke pedestrian and auto traffic in the downtown area. “It was a way to get things in and out.”
Three sets of underground tracks served the complex, branching from a central subsurface line, which emerged from the ground to the south.
“The tunnels are still there, under the buildings,” said Dan Monaghan, a Garland optometrist who helped found the Age of Steam Museum and currently serves on the board of directors for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
Smokeless, miniature engines moved rail cars through the Santa Fe underground.
“It was a small steam locomotive. It just had four wheels on it and a huge steam boiler – but no fire box,” Mr. Monaghan said.
The engines, sometimes referred to as “fireless cookers,” “thermos bottle” or “hot water bottle” engines, could operate for about half a day before having to recharge at a central boiler.
“They couldn’t have combustion down in the tunnel, so that’s why you needed an external steam source,” Mr. Monaghan said.
Traditional steam engines would have spelled disaster for the crews working below ground, according to Mr. LaPrelle.
“You would have eventually been asphyxiated in addition to the fire hazard,” he said.
In its prime, the Santa Fe tunnel complex was one of the most important arteries serving the heart of Dallas. The buildings, described in an ACME Brick advertisement from the period as “one of the outstanding construction projects in the world,” formed one of the Southwest’s largest merchandising centers.
The steel wheels below carried goods into the buildings, with 21 freight elevators lifting merchandise to the upper-level showrooms or first-floor trucking platforms.
The University Club, located in a posh clubhouse atop the Garment Center, provided an elegant crown for the complex and a high-rise playground for the Dallas elite. A sky bridge carried prominent businessmen to the club from the roof of the adjacent Santa Fe Building I.
“I’m sure all manner of things went on up there,” Mr. LaPrelle said.
In later years, studios for WFAA-AM radio, the forerunner to today’s WFAA-TV, would occupy the top of the Garment Center.
In 1942, soldiers became the primary cargo passing through the Santa Fe tunnels. The U.S. government converted a portion of the complex into a recruitment center for the Army. The “thermos bottles” towed thousands of fresh troops away from home, setting them on their way to boot camps across the country.
Today, the scarred floor of the Santa Fe Lofts’ parking garage offers a glimpse of what used to be. Poured concrete has encased the three channels through which as many as 40 railroad cars at a time used to pass.
The two-tone concrete slab and remnants of the loading docks’ metal lip are the only signs of the building’s former use. Mismatched bricks at each end block the former entrance and exit to the rail line.
“When they built the convention center, it severed the connection to the Santa Fe main line,” Mr. Monaghan said.
For the Santa Fe tunnels, as in the case of many historical properties, progress has marked the end of the line.