Secret Houston: Explore the city's hidden gems

Even if you're a lifelong Houstonian, there may be a side to this city you've never seen. Houston's history is full of surprises, many of them revealed in the new book Secret Houston.

One hidden gem lies more than 200 feet below the lawn at Buffalo Bayou Park. The Buffalo Bayou Cistern was first built over 90 years ago to hold the city's drinking water.

"The Cistern holds 15 million gallons of water," said William Dylan Powell, author of Secret Houston. "It was used for decades and decades until eventually it developed a leak."

Designed to resemble ancient Roman cisterns, the architectural marvel holds 221 concrete columns and spans the size of one and a half football fields. This once-forgotten relic is now open for public tours and also houses periodic art installations. The tour schedule and tickets are available at buffalobayou.org.

Another hidden gem allows you to travel back to the golden days of flight. The 1940 Air Terminal Museum is a relic of a bygone era when travelers dressed for the occasion. Located at Hobby Airport, it was the first commercial airport terminal in Houston, welcoming passengers from all over the world.

"It's a fantastic example of art deco, institutional architecture," said Powell. "Not everybody feels like commercial air flying is as luxurious and enjoyable as it used to be. So you go in there and you can see these old accoutrements and exhibits from different airlines that no longer exist."

Hours and admission can be found at 1940airterminal.org.

If you're up for a treasure hunt, another Houston secret lies at Hermann Park. For almost four decades, treasure hunters have been searching the park for a buried chest. Back in 1981, an author buried treasure in 12 U.S. cities to promote his fantasy novel The Secret. The clues to finding it are in his book.

"One of them, he buried here in Houston," said Powell. "The problem was, after only two of those things had been found, he died tragically in a car accident. He was the only one who knew where he buried them."

Houston's treasure has never been found, but it's estimated to be worth thousands of dollars.

Near the Ship Channel bridge is another hidden spot with an important place in World War II history. A 5,000-acre abandoned bomb bunker once housed over 200-million pounds of bullets, grenades, bombs and missiles for Allied forces.

"Right there, just off the East Beltway, you've got the San Jacinto Ordnance Depot, built in 1941," said Powell. "It was sort of like, to Hitler, from Houston, with love. Enjoy the bombs. A bunker is built to keep people safe, big concrete walls. And this was actually built the other way around, they didn't want anything to go off."

The San Jacinto Ordnance Depot also supplied the Army and Navy during the Korean War. It was sold to a private corporation in 1964 and now lies abandoned.

Another Houston secret lurked for decades in three of Houston's bayous. In 2011, a search for a missing woman revealed 127 cars and trucks submerged in Brays, Sims and Buffalo Bayous.

"While they had one of these search boats out, they discovered there was a car there and they discovered another car and another," Powell said. "Soon there were a lot of cars that were discovered in the Houston bayous."

Many of the cars were believed to be stolen or abandoned and inflatable bags were eventually used to float them to the top. For more Houston secrets, check out Secret Houston: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.
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