Tunnel Visions

A Visit to Harvard's Underground

At the main entrance to Harvard's labyrinthine network of steam tunnels, the myths seem credible enough. A discreet door at the corner of the Science Center belies the cavernous two-story room behind it: a blast of warm air and the loud rush of machinery engulf the visitor as the door swings shut on a familiar world that is light, breezy and boundless. Inside, the huge water tanks that dwarf green-uniformed workers and the computer control room could grace the set of any James Bond science fiction scenario.

This could be the entrance to the mysterious passages of Harvard lore. If there were no story of a Nazi spy eluding the F B I escaping through these-tunnels; you would have to invent one. Legend still insists that protestors in the angry riots of 1969 chased the administrators they blamed for Harvard's participation in the ROTC program into and through Harvard's subterranean maze. The year before, George Wallace had escaped from a pack of irate demonstrators by leaving Sanders Theater--where he was giving a speech--via the tunnels. And at one time, the wrestling team apparently used the tunnels as a kind of private Jack LaLanne, jogging through the tropical temperatures in order to shed whole pounds before a match.

Those who know the tunnels--the B&G workers who service the pipes, and Thomas Tribal, Harvard's manager of Energy and Systems-rarely spin such yarns, and instead speak of the utility of these energy-efficient heating highways. Behind this steam screen of infamy and intrigue is really an emphatically nuts and bolts operation that supplies heat to most of the University.

Roughly two miles of underground tunnels house the pipes that carry steam from the Cambridge Steam plant near Harvard's Peabody Terrace apartments to almost all University buildings, excluding the medical area. Steam runs through the pipes to individual campus halls and houses, as far north as the Law School and biology labs as well as across the river to the Business School, and is returned to the plant as condense water, formed from the cooled steam.

Access to the tunnels is restricted to the maintenance crews that service them around the clock. Two men work full-time in the tunnels, and other shifts are rotated between a group of Buildings and Grounds workers. Workers fix leaks, operate valves and inspect the pipes, paying special attention to the pipe joints which expand and contract in response to the steam's heat. Failure of these joints to slide freely could create safety hazard, says Chester P. White, one of the two full-time tuneless. "If a line ever went there'd be no getting out" he warns.


Telephones at intervals throughout the passageways allow the workers to make quick contact with the Science Center monitoring operation, and a hotline provides immediate communication with Cambridge Steam should the steam need to be shut off during an emergency. One might expect that only necessity would prompt a descent into Harvard's bowels. The tunnels are fairly small, approximately eight feet square on average, and crowded with pipes. The heat can be sweltering, ordinarily about 100*F but rising above 120* in the dead of winter when all steam lines are in use Damp stains and sporadic graffiti blotch the concrete walls and slimy puddles stretch along sections of the narrow passageways.

Nevertheless, fiction can often hold a greater grip than fact on the minds of curious students and perhaps the only mystery left to the tunnels lies in the minds of the tunnel operators who don't know why they continue to provoke so much interest. Now, as always, there are occasional attempts to break into the passages, forcing Buildings and Grounds to keep up tight security. Not only are the locations of tunnel entrances kept secret, but also all external doors are locked and doors within the tunnels are wired to sound an alarm in the control room. Any unauthorized tourists in the tunnels can be detected immediately, says Tribal.

Though one undergraduate allegedly disguised himself as a workman and roamed the tunnels freely to avoid the winter cold, most in traders are less systematic. Vandals have occasionally used the tunnels to gain access to University buildings, robbing coin machines found in the basements, says B&G official Norman Goodwin. Most of the entrants, however, are simply curious students. "It would appear that the tunnels remain a continuing challenge to undergraduates," notes Tribble. Break-ins usually come in fits and starts--a small rash of entries followed by six to eight quiet months, he says.

These entries are troublesome to tunnel officials primarily because of potential safety hazards. Sections of the pipes can become extremely hot and water leaves sections of the floors slippery. The danger is compounded if students try to run from oncoming workmen to avoid being caught. "We've had them run on us." White says, adding that students will usually retrace their steps and get out the same way they entered.

Paradoxically, B&G's elaborate security measures seem only to fuel interest in the tunnels which owe their widespread appeal largely to their secrecy. "The thrill is beating the system." Tribble says of student trysts in the tunnels. Certainly the food tunnels, which run parallel to the steam lines from Kirkland to Leverett House, have little of this vaporish mystique. (Though the food tunnels do have a history of their own--it was through these passages that Secretary of Defense MacNamara eluded angry demonstrators during his visit to Harvard.) Although the food tunnels are also closed, students are occasionally granted access to them for various food-related errands. Tunnels under the Houses have lost all intrigue because of unlimited access--whole audiences have been known to troop through the caverns of Dunster, for example.

If anyone sees the steam tunnels through very clear glasses, it is Chet White who has worked full time in the passages for close to four years. "The work's got to be done and we do it," he says of his job. White concedes that the job can be tough; in addition to occasional burns and flooding that can force the men to work knee-deep in water, the heat causes a great deal of fatigue. "The steam seems to drain the energy right out of you sometimes," he says Nevertheless. White--who receives no extra salary for spending his days underground--views his work matter-of-factly and points with pride to the money he and his co-workers save the University by repairing steam leaks. Of his years in the tunnels. White reports nothing stranger than a cat that once found its way underground. "It scared the hell out of me," he recalls.

Still, when all is said and done, the demystified tunnels continue to hold a promise of excitement. Sure it's been some time since spies glided note Lesley through the passageways, but one feels somehow that anything could happen down there.

"Remember don't show her the C I A sectarian." Tribbie warms as White leads a victor into the tunnels.

He's Joking


Twisting pipes snake around the corners of the narrow tunnels.

The steam tunnels are monitored from a control center under the Science Center.