By Karen Borta

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ARLINGTON (CBS11) – Arlington’s attractions make it a family-friendly destination. But did you know, it was once home to a haven for high-rollers? Everyone from Hollywood elite – to notorious gangsters!

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Before you even enter the grounds of Arlington Baptist College in northwest Arlington, it’s hard to miss the beautiful sandstone gatehouse and the Texas historical marker beside it. It’s perhaps your first clue that this wasn’t always a theological seminary.

More than 85 years ago, it was the “Top O’ Hill Terrace,” a private residence that hid one of the most exclusive underground casinos in the country.

Vickie Bryant has been single-handedly unraveling the mystery surrounding the notorious gambling den since shortly after her husband was named college president in the early 1990’s.

“It was all top secret,” Bryant says, “kind of word of mouth. And they tried to keep this place a secret…but…people don’t keep their mouths shut.”

Around the early 1930’s, Top O’ Hill’s owner, Fred Browning, created an illegal gambling enterprise that drew the country’s rich and famous, and sometimes infamous: John Wayne, Gene Autry, Mae West, Frank Sinatra, and Bonnie and Clyde reportedly among them.

There were so many high-rollers, Bryant says it wasn’t unusual for upwards of $250,000 to change hands in a single weekend. And sometimes, there was no escaping police raids. Bryant says that’s why Browning built an elaborate system to elude the authorities. It was a system complete with secret rooms and tunnels.

One of the tunnels is located in the lower levels of the seminary’s administration building, near the cafeteria kitchen.

“This tunnel from Top O’ Hill,” Bryant says, revealing its entrance, “is about 50 feet long, and during the days of Top ‘O Hill, it was ground level and they could just go in and out of the tunnel, and they could run out up into the tea garden when a raid took place. They had food and drinks up there, and they’d sit down and act like they were just up there eating and drinking.

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“This was used for escape. It was also used to carry out bodies of people who were murdered here,” she adds.

For more than a decade, the college’s founder– Baptist minister J. Frank Norris– led the public fight against Top O’ Hill, until one final raid in 1947 closed the casino for good.

The seminary bought the property almost a decade later, and held classes in the casino building until it was almost completely overhauled in the 1970’s. It was by chance a few years ago that maintenance workers stumbled upon a secret room.

“They kept the tunnel and casino walls, but they didn’t know about this room, that we’d be unearthing a room, and you know, which we did about eight years ago,” says Bryant.

Bryant believes there are five or six more hidden tunnels on the property, but excavating them is an expensive proposition– as is restoring the crumbling retaining wall outside the tea garden.

“I’ve applied for five grants, and haven’t been able to get a grant so, I have my back to the wall and I’m going to have to do something pretty fast because I’m afraid this is going to slide down the hill,” she says, pointing to the erosion at the edge of the tea garden.

A few months ago, Top O’ Hill terrace was added to Historic Fort Worth’s list of Most Endangered Places. Bryant has recently started a Go Fund Me page to help raise the estimated $25,000 necessary to shore up the eroding tea garden. She doesn’t even want to consider the alternative.

“You know it’s a shame because Tommy Dorsey performed there and Benny Goodman, and all the famous dancers (including Fort Worth native Ginger Rogers) performed there on the overlook area,” she says. “So this is really a big part of Arlington history here.”

And it’s a history that she’s determined to preserve. For the last four years, she’s given tours up to six times per week. And Top O’ Hill Terrace is currently among the top three attractions in Arlington, right behind AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park.

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