Harvard's Tunnels: Notes From The Underground

Like the swimming test Mrs. Widener demanded and the Polaroid camera shape of the Science Center, the steam tunnels are a part of Harvard legend. A cloudy mixture of fiction and fact, their dimensions expand with each prankster's tale and their history grows more fantastic. One story tells of a sly undergraduate who, dressed as a workman, avoided the winter snows by travelling to classes through the tunnels. During the 1969 occupation of University Hall, another rumor has it, Harvard administrators escaped invading protesters by fleeing through the underground passages. Once upon a time, the wrestling team jogged through the tunnels, sweating from the triple-digit temperatures, to lose weight before matches. And the stories live on.

But truth is stranger than tunnel stories. Two-and-one-quarter miles of tunnels house the steam pipes that heat Harvard. They stretch from the Cambridge Electric Co. plant on Western Ave., Soldiers Field, to the Law School and the science labs. Buried in the depths of each House, and numerous Yard, Business School, laboratory, athletic and Law School buildings, is anentrance to this bizarre network. But the doors that guard these entrances are so well hidden that few undergraduates have ever seen the mysterious passageways.

Of the few that have, many found their way in after an article on the tunnels appeared, complete with a detailed map identifying entrances. The rash of break-ins that followed prompted the Department of Building and Grounds, which maintains the tunnels, to establish a policy prohibiting the release of precise information on the layout of the tunnels. Today, all entrance doors are locked, and locked doors placed at intervals through the tunnels are wired with alarms that sound in the tunnel control room, permitting supervisors to notify the police of an intruder. Numerous "No Trespassing" signs hung by the Harvard Police throughout the tunnels probably disuade few interlopers, but the security system as a whole has kept all but a few from the tunnels in recent years.

Except the workers. Thirteen men serve under Daniel L. Campell, superintendent of Maintainence Operators, repairing leaks, opening and closing valves, and maintaining the steam pipes that run through the tunnels. None of the men works in the tunnels full-time, although occassional maintainance projects require some to stay underground for up to eight hours.

It's not easy work. The thermometers in the tunnels usually hover at about 100F, but temperatures as high as 120 have been reached. Supervisors must walk a tightrope between overheating the tunnels, which would make maintainance work difficult, and cooling them to the point where steam pipes lose their heat.

The tunnels were originally built to house the pipes. Construction, which started in 1927, was aimed at providing maintainance workers with easy access to the pipes. Damp and dark, the concrete bunkers are sometimes ten feet high, at other points too low for a 6-ft. person to stand. They are packed tight with pipes; six or eight run along the walls of a typical segment, some of them two-feet-in-diameter monstrosities enclosing smaller tubes.

The tunnel's nerve center is a Honeywell Delta 2500 computer housed in the basement of the Science Center. The computer monitors temperature, steam flow and other tunnel functions. Supervisors work around the clock here, watching the computer and receiving calls that come from maintainance men throughout the tunnels by means of the intercoms and a separate telephone system located at intervals in the passageways.

For most of its length, a tunnel runs from two to ten feet below street level, and almost all of it is high enough to stand in. In two stretches, however, obstacles restricted tunnel construction and special designs had to be employed. One was the MBTA subway line. Squeezed between the subway tunnel and Massachusetts Ave., the steam tunnel shrinks to a mere 3 1/2 feet in height. Workers must lie prone on a rolling flatbed cart and draw themselves along by means of a rope pulley system. Most maintenance men go above ground to avoid this segment, using the pull-cart only when they must.

The Charles River was another obstacle for the tunnel-builders. Instead of burrowing under it, they chose to build over it--by means of the Weeks Bridge. The pipes that warm the Business School and the Soldiers Field complex snuggle in the hollow space beneath the walkway surface but above the arches that support the bridge. The passageway here is a wooden catwalk that runs up and over these rippling arches, creating a space that is quite high between the humps, smaller on the top of the arches, but always high enough to walk through, with an occasional stoop.

One barrier the architects could not overcome was the Cambridge Street underpass. Before it was built in 1967, the tunnels linked the Law School and the Yard. Now the pipes pass below the walkway surface, but the tunnel ends beneath Canaday and begins again near the Science Center.

Humming pipes and sweating workmen are the everyday reality of the tunnels. But the fantastic stories upperclassmen pass on to freshmen, like many Harvard legends, also have some basis in fact. Administrators never fled oncoming legions of protesters through the tunnels, but when students closed University Hall for a day last spring, the tunnels came into play. Dean Fox recalls that Harvard police used the tunnels to enter the building, while hordes of protesters sat unknowingly on the steps, blocking above ground entrances.

The tunnels provided a handy escape hatch to George C. Wallace when he spoke in Sanders Theater in 1968. As W.C. Burriss Young '55, associate dean of freshmen, remembers it, an angry crowd outside the auditorium had the Harvard police worried. Several armed bodyguards accompanied Wallace, and then-University Police Chief Robert Tonis feared violence might erupt if the Wallace entourage attempted to walk through the crowd. So Tonis had the police escort Wallace through the tunnels to an awaiting car. (When Sectretary of Defense Robert McNamara was whisked away from demonstrators, however, the food tunnels linking five River Houses to the University's central kitchen were used.)

Chief Tonis learned about the tunnels the hard way. Back in 1939. Tonis was an FBI agent assigned to tail a certain German spy in the U.S. Upon arriving in South Station, the suspect checked in at a Boston hotel and took a cab to Harvard, where he entered one of the River Houses. In the evening, he returned to his hotel. The next day he repeated his visit to Cambridge, entering the same House. But he never came out.

The spy was next seen, much later, in New York. He had escaped, the FBI concluded, through the tunnels. When Tonis became police chief in 1962, one of his first moves was to take an exhaustive tour of the tunnels to familiarize himself with them.

German spies and student demonstrations don't sweep through Cambridge often; everyday life in the pipe-filled tunnels is much less glamorous. Tall tales and legends aside, most undergraduates rarely come into contact with the network. Some sharp observers, however, will note that through early fall, a swath of grass in the Yard stays green longer than the rest, and through winter that patch melts away its cover of snow and remains in sight. These few will see beneath the legend of the Harvard tunnels.