SAN ANGELO, Texas (AP) - Barbara Strain was shocked when they pulled the Masonite back from the wall and found the entrance to tunnels.
"I was surprised and the girls from across the street came over and we were just digging in there with our hands," she said.
The San Angelo Standard-Times reports Strain and her husband, Alfred Strain, purchased the building in 2014 to renovate it into the Jesse Rose Mercantile store. They let their grandchildren use the basement for a play area.
During renovations, she was in the basement when she noticed a step in the corner. Her husband grabbed a hammer and pulled the Masonite off to expose a hollowed area leading under the street.
They soon noticed more variations in the wall and ultimately found four tunnel entrances.
"The history of San Angelo needs to be told, everyone has heard of it and thought it was a myth," she said. "I think it was kept secret because a lot of men made a lot of money during prohibition."
In the late 1800s, Historic Block One was home to several bars and bordellos and was rumored to be a tough district.
"We had historians and archeologists in here and they took soil samples and pictures," Strain said.
There are two rooms that were blocked off where they found shoes, keys and other historical items. Stain thinks at one point there was an entrance to the basement for horses that was sealed up along with the rooms.
The building was a buggy factory and the John Fitzpatrick Salon in 1884 and a blacksmith shop.
Today, one tunnel goes back about 10 feet and is believed to lead straight across the street to what used to be the bank. Two entrances in the center of the building are boarded up but old wood boardwalks under the street are visible.
The last entrance is bricked shut, Stain said it was blocked by Texas Rangers in 1946 due to prostitution.
Across the street is Miss Hattie's Restaurant and Cathouse Lounge, which is owned by San Angelo Mayor Brenda Gunter.
During renovations in the 1970s, her husband, Ken Gunter, had to do foundation work on the building. He found a hollowed-out area that had Civil War buttons, coins and bottles.
"We know the tunnel existed, but at the time he didn't know how curious people would be about it and he didn't open it up," she said.
The tunnel is under the restaurant's dining room. Gunter doesn't have any plans to open the tunnel because of the amount of money it would require to ensure the tunnels are safe and up to code.
"We can tap on the floor and you could hear where it's really hollow," she said.
Tunnels are rumored to lead to the Cactus Hotel and down the street to Legend Jewelers. Gunter said they were built for various reasons such as to escape Indians, fires and prohibition.
"I think it's important that we know about our history and the people who started this business district," Gunter said. "It's who we are, otherwise we are just one of millions of cities across the country and you want to be able to tell your story."
Strain is slowly working on creating a museum in her basement with a jail and saloon along with photos and artifacts. She also plans to excavate further into the tunnels.
"There has been speculation, but this is fact, these are the tunnels," she said. "It's just me and my husband, so it takes time."Both business owners agree the tunnels are a fascinating part of San Angelo history."We want to stand out in terms of who we are and you can't do that without having a history," Gunter said.