To people who were living in Fort Worth during the last half of the twentieth century, riding the M&O Subway is one of the abiding memories of life in Cowtown, along with riding the Forest Park miniature train, hunting for Pete the python or Goatman, watching Slam Bang Theater on Channel 11 or a movie in a fancy theater on Show Row downtown, and waiting for your number to be called in the catalog order department at Ward’s.
On February 15, 1963 a blue and white subway car drove through a simulated brick wall and into the basement terminal of Leonard’s Department Store. The M&O subway was officially open. This postcard shows the double track and the tunnel. The M&O subway’s name was derived from the first initials of store founder Marvin Leonard and brother Obie Leonard. (At the top of the bluff the new Criminal Courts Building had just opened.)
Watch 1973 WFAA-TV film clip (with audio).
Before the subway began operation, the brothers had built a five thousand-car parking lot beside the Trinity River at Henderson Street and had operated a fleet of buses to ferry customers to the store up the hill. The subway’s cars replaced the buses. Leonard’s Department Store had bought the cars from the D.C. Transit Co. of Washington; the cars were remodeled, and air conditioning was added for Texas summer shoppers.
The Dallas Morning News announced plans for the subway on August 2, 1962.
The subway line was short (.7 mile, and only .2 mile of that underground). The Dallas Morning News said the tunnel was forty feet below ground level where it passed under Belknap, Weatherford, and 1st streets. The mouth of the tunnel was just west of Taylor Street, now covered by the TCC/Radio Shack campus. (Photos from Leonard’s Museum.)
Archival footage from WBAP-TV.The subway and its five thousand-car parking lot were a big deal for Fort Worth. The two local newspapers were full of ads and articles in the days surrounding the opening of the subway on February 15.
The opening of the subway coincided with the opening of the expanded and renovated Leonard’s Department Store. A broadcast of Slam Bang Theater, with Icky Twerp and one or more associates in person, originated from Leonard’s during the formal openings.
Of course, shoppers were perfectly free to ride the Leonard’s subway to shop at the store’s competitors—Stripling’s, Monnig’s—but first they had to be tunneled and funneled through Leonard’s.
Leonard’s didn’t miss a marketing trick. It carpeted the subway cars and station platform with Bigelow carpet as a “torture test” and held a Bigelow carpet sale.
Leonard family members rode on the first subway car into the new “Home Store.”
The Santa subway. (Photo from Leonard’s Museum.)
But in 1967 Tandy Corporation (owner of Radio Shack) bought the department store, which Marvin Leonard had opened in 1918. The store and subway continued to operate under the Leonard’s name until 1974, when Tandy sold the store to Dillard’s Department Stores. Tandy demolished Leonard’s in 1974 to build Tandy Center.
But even with its namesake department store gone, the subway continued to roll. In 1978 a man and woman were married where they had first seen each other—on the subway.
In 2001 Radio Shack (Tandy) sold Tandy Center to PNL Companies. The next year Radio Shack built a new headquarters on the site of the Ripley Arnold public-housing complex and part of the old Leonard’s parking lot.
Marvin Leonard, who also founded Colonial Country Club in 1936 and helped to bring the U.S. Open to Colonial in 1941 and the Colonial National Invitational beginning in 1946, died in 1970 at age seventy-five. Obie died in 1987 at age eighty-nine.
The M&O subway made its last run on August 30, 2002.
For years after subway service ended, this passenger underpass remained beneath the track right-of-way on the Leonard’s parking lot. The underpass has been filled in.
Today few reminders of Cowtown underground remain. Along the Taylor Street side of the sunken garden of Tarrant County Plaza is a glass wall. Through that wall you can see the space once occupied by the subway tunnel and platform under Taylor Street. The tracks have been removed.
Above ground the subway line’s car maintenance shed and yard remain on the parking lot. Rails still run to the shed and yard.
The shed has been repurposed as a venue for special events.
And two of the subway’s four open-faced stations remain. The heaters still hang from the ceiling.
Each of the two surviving stations has a short section of subway track in front of it.
End of the line, everybody off.
Or transfer to
Cowtown Underground (Part 2): The Fate of the M&O Rolling Stock
Christmas 1963 saw my family in Fort Worth visiting family. One of the sights we could not miss was Leonards. I remember riding the “subway” to the store but don’t remember much else EXCEPT I came out with a genuine Cowgirl hat from Leonards Deartment Store. I took good care of it, wore it often and have just – 59 years later – gifted that hat to my 11 year old granddaughter who has asked Santa for a pair of Cowgirl boots.
The Leonard son who was over Pecan Plantation reality recently passed away.
What about the dwarf?
Was the pilot a dwarf?
I remember my mother driving my friends & I to the M & O station to ride into downtown & shop. We were 14 & couldn’t drive yet. But we loved the
M & O. We could hit Leonard’s, Monnig’s, Stripling’s, & Woolworth’s, all in a Saturday.
Mostly looking & window shopping, but we often came home with $.99 earrings from Woolworth’s.
Would do it again in a minute.
It was a brilliant marketing idea: “Y’all are free to ride our subway into downtown and shop in any stores you want to. But you gotta get through OUR store to get to the others.
Thanks for the memories! Rode the M&O when a child to see the XMAS displays at Leonard’s; and as an adult, rode from the parking lot to Radio Shack where I worked. I am 79 and retired from Radio Shack in 2008. As a genealogy patron, I love any history and those who provide photos, etc. of that history.
Thank you, Janet Steppick. The subway is a fond memory for so many of us Cowtowners.
Thanks. Pleased to have ridden the last run with members of the Leonard family. Previously visited Ft. Worth in the late sixties to ride the M&O.
I GREW UP ON THE M&O SUBWAY WHILE LIVING IN THE HOUSING UNITS THAT SURROUNDED BELKNAP, HENDERSON, PEACH, AND IT’S GONE. MY DAUGHTER TOOK ME PAST THERE, AND IT’S GONE. SO LONG.
I remember the Ripley Arnold Place housing project. It was demolished between 2001 and 2004. Before that the area was known as “Battercake Flats.”
I was curious about how the marriage between Phillip and Becky fared so I looked through the Tarrant County marriage records and did a quick Google search. It looks like they were married for a total of 7 months…
Hah! Curiosity is a terrible affliction to suffer. I may have to add a postscript.
And the two remaining stations were cleaned up, recently painted blue and labelled Stage 1 and Stage 2. It looks like their afterlife will be as part of the Panther Island Pavilion complex.
It’s good (refreshing even) that someone looked at those old stations and thought “Hey, you know what these could be?” rather than “Get the ‘dozer.”
Mike, don’t know if you remember Jack Strickland from your class but his sister Carol was one of the last conductors on the subway. Had not seen her in 30 years. I went downtown for a farewell ride when they said it was being DCd and there she was behind the controls. Great story here. Thanks for keeping it alive
Thanks, Kathy. And our Jerry Martin was an engineer on the Forest Park miniature train.