The Hermann Park train was installed in 1959 and has been hauling families across the perimeters of the park every year since. It is a slow way to move between the Medical Center and Rice University, and skirts nearby attractions such as the zoo, Museum of Natural Science, and Miller Outdoor Theater, but it has always been treasured as an amusement in and of itself. Anyone raised in Houston fondly remembers boarding the train on class trips or with their parents. The most anticipated part of the journey was always the “tunnel” even though it was just a barren, metal shed with amateurish cartoon depictions painted on the sides.
When the Hermann Park Conservancy rebuilt the tunnel in 2009, it was slated for some kind of mural. Something to awe and inspire. Something that wouldn’t leave quite so much to the imagination to induce that sense of wonder. The park prepared to celebrate its centennial in 2014 by inviting several artists to build temporary installations for a year-long event called “Art in the Park.” Local art superstar, Trenton Doyle Hancock, was given the honor of transforming the tunnel for the next generation of passengers.
Hancock has made his stamp on the art world by creating an alternate universe where his altar ego, Torpedo Boy, is the hero. “Mounds” are the furry, stripey, half-human, half-plant hybrids that came from the procreation of cavemen and wildflowers. Much as plants transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, mounds take all of the anguish of the world and transform it into happiness. The more anguish devoured, the bigger the mound. Hancock states that they are the spirit of the earth.
“Destination Mound Town” is a little bit Wonkatania and a little bit pink elephant. A cartoon conductor, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the artist, drives the train through a landscape of pop-eyed cartoon animals and botanicals that pay homage to those in the adjacent zoo. The mascot of nearby Rice University, Sammy the Owl, also makes a cameo appearance. Text reading “CHOO CHOO” and “MOUND” encircle and animate the entourage while cutouts of frogs, bugs, and plants bring the action out of the wall and onto the astroturf. As you pass through the tunnel, the experience shifts from the psychedelic colors of morning to a dual-toned palette of black and blue implying nightfall. On the opposite side is a coloring book, mirror image of the whole scene, combined with actual mirrors that bounce light and expand the girth of the dark corridor.
Know Before You Go
The tunnel is accessible by foot but Hermann Park insists that it is not safe. They implore you to view it only by train. The main ticket office is located at Kinder Station in Lake Plaza, but you can board anywhere you see a platform. The train stops at Rice University, the Natural History Museum, and the Buddy Carruth Playground. If you want to return from whence you boarded, you will just get off at Kinder Station and buy a ticket. The complete loop takes about 20 minutes. The park also offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a conductor in a four hour tour where you can blow the whistle, check the track, and greet passengers.
The train runs Monday -Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Tickets are $3.50 per person or $7.00 for an all day pass, which is only offered on non-holiday weekdays.