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Mysteries Underneath

Strange Lubbock tunnel baffles investigators: A secret smuggler's getaway?

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Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013
A mysterious tunnel found in Lubbock has area historians searching for clues. Photo courtesy of KHOU Houston/Channel 11
Lee Smithwick Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013
Homeowner Lee Smithwick stepped outside to move his sprinkler, only to find it sitting at the bottom of a strange tunnel. Photo courtesy of KHOU Houston/Channel 11
Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013 with police tape
Historians have crossed off a list of possibilities for the abandoned tunnel . . . except for bootlegging. Photo courtesy of KHOU Houston/Channel 11
Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013
Lee Smithwick Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013
Lubbock man discovers hidden tunnel in back yard September 2013 with police tape

A Lubbock family and their sprinkler system unleashed a Texas mystery this month when routine lawn maintenance unearthed a strange tunnel beneath their backyard.

"We don't know exactly what it is yet, but I can tell you that it's definitely not a sinkhole," laughs Robert Tidwell, a historian with Texas Tech University's National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC), which is hoping to shed light on the odd finding.

"It has wooden beams for support and stretches at least 100 feet. It's only about three feet wide and six feet tall," Tidwell tells CulutreMap. The space is just large enough to accommodate a single average-sized adult . . . but certainly not two.

Tidwell and his colleagues believe the tunnel dates after 1909, when the area's first rail lines were built. 

According to KCBD in Lubbock, the story began on Labor Day Monday when Lee Smithwick and his wife Brenda were watering the grass and noticed that the sprinkler had disappeared. Upon further investigation, the couple found that a hole had formed in their yard. The sprinkle head was sitting at the bottom of an underground passage almost 10 feet below.

Judging from the railroad ties used to support the ceiling and walls, Tidwell and his colleagues believe the tunnel dates after 1909, when the area's first rail lines were built. Considering its small confines, the historians ruled out possibilities that the space was once a root cellar, storm shelter or a dug-out home — three below-ground structures found throughout the region.

"We won't really know how it was used until we can see into the tunnel," he says. "And so far, no one's volunteered to jump into a tunnel that appears to be collapsing."

Until the Texas Tech team can get a better view of the tunnel, historians are gravitating toward the possibility that the clandestine channel was built by enterprising bootleggers. Lubbock County has long been a bastion of Texas teetotalling, with a ban on packaged alcohol sales lifted as recently as 2009.

"We know there has always been a good amount of bootlegging in the area, both during Prohibition and afterward when people were trying to avoid liquor laws and taxes," Tidwell says. "This certainly could be a smugglers' tunnel. It's away from town, but not too far . . . But we won't know anything for sure until we get down there."

The City of Lubbock is expected to excavate a potion of the tunnel later this week.

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