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Tales of the Tunnels

By Vindu P. Goel

Beneath the streets of Harvard, exists a world that most students never see. Down in the tunnels connecting almost every Harvard building, you can hear no noise from the street, feel no breeze, smell nothing. The air is humid and temperatures in the tunnels reach 120 degrees in the places, creating a tropical atmosphere. The eight-foot gray concrete walls shelter the University's vital organs--steam, water, and electric lines.

A certain mysticism surrounds the tunnels which span about three miles and connect the basements of almost every building in the College and much of the University. The tunnels take their name from the three 10-to-12-inch steam lines which provide Harvard with 100 pounds of steam pressure per square inch. In addition, the tunnels carry electric, telephone, and water lines and the cotton-insulated radio cables of WHRB, the student-run radio station.

Students, not immune to the call of the dark, throughout the tunnels' history have found illicit adventure beneath the Houses. And for some students, exploring the tunnels has become a intramural sport. These so-called "tunnel runners" engage in late-night wanderings around the maze of tunnels.

Graffiti, ranging from phone numbers to drawings, frequently decorate the tunnel walls which intrepid students have left on the walls to mark their descents into the unknown. The obscene drawings and interesting slogans beneath New Quincy House, for instance, have won renown among Harvard tunnel runners. A recent addition--"Quincy House 'Comics' Class of '87"--has been scribbled across one of the walls. And "Nuke New Quincy" appears nearby.

The tunnels run from Cambridge Electric Light Company on Western Avenue through the College to the Law School's Langdell Hall. One branch travels through the Weeks footbridge to the Business School. The poorly lit corridor passes through the hollow interior of the bridge and is sealed off from the main passageways by locked doors.

On the College side of the bridge a big "JB 1927" is painted on the left wall, and wooden slat steps wend their way up the bridge's first arch. After about dozen steps, the staircase ends and the floor begins to follow the contour of the bridge arches.

The floor and ceiling slope closer and closer, and soon it is necessary to drop down to hands and knees. Each arch peaks about two feet away from the ceiling and then goes back down. Beyond the three arches, a set of steel double doors leads into the Business School, where the tunnels dramatically change character.

B-School students, faculty, and staff use the public tunnels to travel underground from building to building. Laundry rooms. Coke machines, and bathrooms dot the yellow cement-brick walls, and the steam pipes far above are barely noticeable. People pass through unconcerned by the strange clicking noise can be heard coming from the pipes at intersections. Decorative flagstones pave the floor in some places.

Nazi Spy Chases

Tales of intrigue and adventure abound concerning the tunnels. Perhaps the most famous story about the tunnels is the one about "the Nazi spy" said Robert Tonis, '77, former chief of University police. "When I was in the FBI [in 1939] we had a surveillance of a man who was in this country and was thought to be a German spy." Tonis remembers.

The suspected spy took a train from New York to Boston, where Tonis was waiting for him. The man took a taxi to one of Harvard's river houses, with Tonis in full pursuit.

But then, "he disappeared," Tonis says. "We lost the tail job. We later found out that he came out one of the tunnels." Although the FBI soon picked up the German's trail again, the mystery remains as to how he accessed or even knew about the tunnels.

Tonis says he doesn't know, but eventually the FBI dropped the surveillance. "It became evident after a while that he was a businessman," Tonis says.

South African Escape

Suspected spies aren't the only ones who have used the tunnels to escape pursuit.

Abe S. Hoppenstein, the Consul-General from South Africa, two years ago eluded divestment protesters by going through the tunnels after giving a speech in Lowell House. Hoppenstein had been invited to speak at Harvard by the Conservative Club. Protesters gathered during and after the speech, and blockaded Hoppenstein within the Junior Common Room.

With the help of a human battering ram formed by University police, Hoppenstein forced his way to a nearby room that had tunnel access and descended the staircase. More police prevented protesters from following.

Bradley H. Boyer '87, Director of Police and Security Paul E. Johnson, a detective, and a tunnel engineer escorted the diplomat to Adams House's Linden Street tunnel exit near the Harvard Lampoon.

"The police were concerned that Adams House was too close and that SASC [Southern Africa Solidarity Committee] members might be watching tunnel exits," says Boyer. However the escort did not have much choice--the tunnel turns into a one-foot-high crawlspace to cross Massachusetts Avenue, above the T tunnel.

Instead, "we waited just inside that door," Boyer recalls. "The police called an unmarked car to the Lampoon."

"We stood in the tunnel for about five minutes, waiting for the police car to be positioned," he says. When it arrived, the group ran to the car and took Hoppenstein to the airport.

The Consul-General took his tunnel escape in stride, according to Boyer. "He was upset to a certain degree when he was trapped in the junior common room. After that he was composed and took it with good humor," Boyer says.

Undergraduate Explorers

Students are understandably fascinated by tunnel lore, and more than a few of them decide to explore the subterranean world for themselves. Tunnel supervisors say that three or four students are usually caught each year, although Andrew Culhane, night shift supervisor, adds that as many 25 people have been nabbed in a single year.

"I don't know how the heck they get in, but they do," says Robert Howard, the relief shift supervisor.

"Most of the time they get out some door or another," says Roger L. Edgely, a day-shift supervisor for operations. "Once you get in, you can get out almost any door" because the doors are not locked from the inside, he says.

Since a signal lights up in the utilities master control room in the basement of the Science Center whenever a door is opened, it is fairly easy for tunnel supervisors to catch intruders. If a door is opened and the control room operator hasn't heard about it, University Police and a tunnel operator are immediately sent to deal with unauthorized persons, Culhane says.

The police consider unauthorized entry by students to be a criminal offense. "As far as we're concerned, if someone's not supposed to be in a place, it's trespassing, whether it's a student or anyone else," says Deputy Chief of Police Jack W. Morse. Possible arrest is not the only hazard faced by would-be explorers. The steam tunnels themselves can be hazardous.

Even a small break in those lines can be dangerous, says Culhane, a night-shift supervisor of Harvard's utilities plant. "You stay keenly aware while walking through the tunnels and listen," he says. "A 100-pound steam line with a pinhole in it can do your skin a lot of damage."

However, the danger doesn't deter some students.

Current students understandably decline to describe their adventures in the tunnels for fear of disciplinary action, but one graduate recently described his tunnel adventures. "When I was a freshman, we used to go [into the tunnels] through our entry in Wigglesworth," says Saied Kashani '86, a first-year law student.

"I had heard Harvard had tunnels," Kashani says. "I was curious. I thought with the weather being cold, they would be useful." When Kashani found a key to the basement door of Wiggleworth E entry, he discovered that he and his friends could check out the tunnels for themselves.

"They had electric alarms, but you could defeat them with a screwdriver," he says. "They never discovered us."

Kashani made several voyages of exploration into the subterranean passages, both with and without the aid of electricity. "They're all lit, if you can find the light switches. If you can't find the light switches, it's pretty scary," he says. "In all that time, I never took a flashlight down there," he continues. "That would increase your chances of getting caught."

He once walked along in the dark through the tunnel that runs from Weld Hall to Sever Hall. "If you ever walk through a dark tunnel, you can't walk straight," he says. "It's a very strange feeling. You start reeling towards the wall. You lose your sense of orientation, of equilibrium." He finally made it, though, and the next time he went through the passage he made sure he found the light switch.

While most students face disciplinary charges for entering the tunnels, Aaron L. Silverstone '87, WHRB's station manager, and Tomasz M. Dindorf '87, its chief engineer, are authorized to make trips into the tunnels to work on the station's lines.

The station owns one of the precious keys which open every door in the tunnels.

"We have keys," Silverstone says, "[but] we notify them whenever we go in because they know instantly when we go in."

Having a key doesn't always help. Last August, Silverstone and Dindorf got temporarily lost in the tunnels. "Our job was done," Dindorf says. "We were exploring just for fun."

They ended up in the Lowell House kitchen and found that all the doors were locked. "For a while we thought we were doomed," Silverstone says. "We had to get out through the place where the trays go through."

"We sort of slid out like dirty plates," says Dindorf. "[Then] we just slipped through a gate which wasn't too tightly closed." Nobody outside noticed, he adds.

For some, the fascination with tunnels can last more than the four years they spend at school here. Years after Tonis and the suspected spy engaged in their cat-and-mouse game, Tonis was appointed Chief of Harvard Police. When he came to Cambridge, he decided to return to the scene of the chase and explore the tunnels. "I was interested. When I came to Harvard, I explored them...from the Law School to the Business School to satisfy my curiosity," he said.

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