Day Tripper

Prowl secret underground tunnels at this illicit casino west of Dallas

Prowl secret underground tunnels at this illicit casino west of Dallas

Top O' Hill Estate
This former casino always had a lookout at the front gate. Photo courtesy of Top O' Hill

Editor's note: Dallas resident Stacy Breen is an intrepid explorer of local culture with an instinct for making nifty discoveries. She's contributing a weekly column on her cool finds.

Arlington has no shortage of tourist destinations, but one of my favorites is one of the most offbeat: Top O' Hill Terrace, a former gambling den that's now home to a Baptist college on the western edge of Arlington.

This place was built in the 1920s as a restaurant and tea room, but it led a dual life. It also had a casino with a gambling operation, brothel, and bar; this was back during the Prohibition days, when gambling was still illegal. All these famous people, like Bonnie and Clyde and actors Lana Turner and Tom Mix, would visit.

One of the wildest things is that it had a set of underground tunnels where people could escape if the cops came. There was always a lookout at the entrance gate who would signal if the cops were approaching. Everything in the place rotated so that the gaming tables could be moved out of sight, and people would run out through these tunnels.

It closed down, and in the '50s became the grounds for Arlington Baptist College (and as of June, it graduated to become Arlington Baptist University). There are now classrooms and dormitories, but some of the buildings and tunnels from Top O' Hill Terrace remained. That's the crazy thing: A place with this seedy history is now the site of a Baptist university. And it's not even an hour away.

The tour
Tours are offered for $10 a person. The website says, "No group is too small," but there is a minimum. I brought a small group of moms, so they put us with a church group.

It's like an estate with a big house, with a big stone wall around it. The guide is Vickie Bryant, whose husband was previously president of the school. She researched the background of the Terrace and made it the tourist attraction it is. Then the Texas Historical Commission proclaimed it an official State Historical Landmark.

She does an hour-long PowerPoint presentation, where she sits on a stool and narrates over the slides. She shares the history of who owned it and who came there. That room has lots of memorabilia that Bryant has collected over the years, with clippings and artifacts. She continues to seek out things, like the poker chips she found at an antique shop in Granbury with the initials of the guy who owned the estate.

The gambling room downstairs is now pretty sterile; it looks like a cafeteria. But you can see the escape tunnels behind panels of Plexiglas. These aren't like some crawl tunnel, it's not hunks of dirt. They were built to be sturdy and secure and tall enough to accommodate a human who just happens to be running away from the cops.

One tunnel leads to an outdoor tea garden. It's serene. You can walk around that part, and you can walk over to the border of property and look down over the wall to see where one of the escape tunnels comes out on the side of the hill.

There are said to be more tunnels on the property. Bryant did a demonstration with a divining rod where she walked to a spot and the rod responded, which indicated there was probably a tunnel underneath. But it would cost a lot to dig up the property and find out if anything is there.

Part of the property is deteriorating, so Bryant began a fundraising page in 2015 which has so far gathered more than $6,000 in donations.

The lunch
Because I've driven all the way to Arlington, of course I'm planning where I'm going to eat. I had read about Tandoor, an Indian restaurant not too far away that had a couple of things of interest. For one thing, it had two buffets at lunch, one with meat and one that was vegetarian — very good for a group.

The buffet was okay. It did have one thing I don't see too often: chickpea dumplings in a spicy sauce. They make them with chickpea flour and mix in finely chopped vegetables. It was like a savory doughnut hole.

It also had a tandoori oven, the clay oven used in Indian cooking. It was in an ornately tiled room that was glassed off, but you could see them placing slabs of bread dough against the walls of the oven to cook it. I've eaten in quite a few Indian restaurants and I've never seen a tandoori oven on display like that, where someone is working the oven and cooking the naan. Getting it straight from the oven — warm and a little chewy — was a treat.