The Steam Tunnels

Harvard's Secret Underground Wonderland:

When Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, an ardent supporter of segregation, spoke in Sanders Theatre in 1968, he received a less-than-friendly welcome from the Harvard crowd--which surrounded the theater after his speech.

Wallace's bodyguards, despite being armed, would not permit him to walk through the crowd because they were fearful that violence would erupt.

Wallace desperately needed an escape route, and Harvard Police Chief Robert Tonis came to his rescue by leading the governor and his bodyguards to the basement of Sanders Theatre--where they entered Harvard's steam tunnel system.

The group walked through the tunnels to an exit in the Yard, where Harvard police quickly escorted Wallace to an automobile and drove him off campus.

Or so the story goes, says Associate Dean of Freshman W. C. Burriss Young '55, who says he heard the story from Tonis himself.


Harvard's underground steam tunnels, a secret to most members of the Harvard community, provide a direct link between many Yard buildings, river houses, science labs, the Law School and the Business School (please see map).

A total of three miles of passageways lie about six feet beneath the ground, just under the sub-basements of Harvard buildings.

Tonis knew about the tunnel system because, as a former FBI agent, he had been assigned to tail a suspected German spy in 1939.

In that year during World War II, Tonis and his partner followed the spy from Boston's South Station to Cambridge. The spy entered one of Harvard's river houses and disappeared.

When Tonis assumed the role of Harvard police chief 1962, "the first thing he wanted to do was figure out how the spy had escaped his pursuers," Young says.

Tonis concluded that the spy must have evaded the FBI by using the steam tunnels, and because of that experience, Tonis extensively familiarized himself with the tunnel system--fortunately for Wallace in 1968.

While the tunnels have come in handy for Harvard's visitors--and intruders--on at least a handful of occasions, and have sparked the curiosity of mischievous students through the years, the underground paths serve several essential functions for the University.

The steam tunnels originate from the Cambridge Electric Company's steam generating plant on Western Ave., and contain the steam that heats most of Harvard's buildings.

The tunnels run from the power plant all the way up to the Law School and science labs. Another section of the tunnel crosses over the Charles River to the Business School and Soldiers Field via Weeks Footbridge.

They contain more than just steam pipes, as they carry the chilled water conduits, cable TV, computer, telephone and fire alarm lines." There are some areas with electrical power cables and natural gas pipes," says Tom Vautin, the director of the Facilities Maintenance Department.