Inside the Hidden World of the Downtown Houston’s Tunnels

You would be surprised how many Houstonians don’t realize our great city has an underground system of tunnels 20 feet below downtown… unless of course you’re just now learning this, and then — surprise! The tunnels total more than 6 miles long and connect 95 city blocks, mostly in the western half of downtown. At midday, downtown Houston — the nation’s fourth-largest city — can seem like an eerily deserted ghost town… but it’s because everyone is under the city!

The pedestrian walkways are completely underground and climate controlled. They link together office towers to hotels, banks restaurants, stores and the Houston Theater District. The tunnels also contain shops, newsstands, banks, food courts and other conveniences such as repair shops, copy centers, dry cleaners and florists. They are widely used by both tourists and people who work and live downtown, and the tunnel is normally open during weekday business hours only.


Accessing the Underground

Two buildings — McKinney Garage and the Wells Fargo Plaza, both on Main Street — provide entrances to the tunnel with direct access from the street. Otherwise, pedestrians enter the tunnel from street-level stairs, escalators and elevators inside various office buildings connected to the tunnel. The tunnels can now house 150,000 people in a climate controlled environment, and an average of 3,000 people stream through at lunch time.

There are similar tunnel systems in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Minneapolis, Montreal and Toronto. But the Houston tunnels are particularly important to pedestrians in the summers, when temperatures regularly go above 100 degrees, and during the rainy hurricane season, when many downtown streets can quickly flood.


Incredible Architectural Achievement

The first tunnel was built in the 1930s, commissioned by oilman and politician Ross Sterling, who was the 31st Governor of Texas from 1931-33. Sterling wanted to connect two neighboring buildings he owned. He was inspired by the underground tunnel system at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Soon after, radio station and movie theater owner Will Horwitz connected three of his vaudeville and movie theaters with tunnels to save on air-conditioning.

The tunnel system continued to grow from there, despite the private expense of digging the connections. The oil bust of the 1980s, and the general up-and-down nature of the energy industry over the year, forced some building owners to compete for business with amenities like what’s in the tunnels.


Ease of Navigation

The color-coded miles of the tunnels connect 77 buildings, most of which have an access point in their basement level or a tunnel stop for their elevators. Everything is color-coded, which serves as a great signaling and way-finding system to figure out which building you are currently located under.

The tunnels are not connected to a transit network, and most of the system is private, as each segment is controlled by the individual building owner who deigns to allow the public access during business hour. But it’s a great way to navigate downtown, eat, shop or even power walk comfortably.

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Jocelyn Sexton is a marketing and corporate communications professional with more than 15 years of writing experience. She is a passionate storyteller and has worked in a variety of industries, including a stint in state government where she worked to promote Texas food with the Department of Agriculture. She earned an Executive MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has an undergraduate degree in Journalism-Public Relations from the University of North Texas.

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