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A sepia ectoplasm of leaf imprints is caked onto the concrete blocks of a bridge dedicated to a dead man. As students, we interact with the John Weeks Bridge regularly, but we never stop to consider the history the structure holds. Scuff marks hint at footsteps that once thundered there, as ephemeral as the leaves that once lay on the drying cement. Scattered stories are the only scraps of vestigial proof we have to document the thousands of people who walked across, ritually jumped off, and fell in love on this bridge.
The little secrets ensconced on the Weeks footbridge belie a greater one: why it’s there. Rather than being built as a quaint pedestrian thoroughfare, it was constructed in 1926 for the far more utilitarian purpose of funneling steam over to the Business School. An ever-expanding Harvard needed a new method to bring heat from what is now the Blackstone plant on the Cambridge side to their facilities on the Allston side. The bridge was ultimately built as a way to extend their sprawling network of steam tunnels.
This means that the landmark’s hollow brick facade conceals a secret passageway. A damp, dimly lit wooden walkway rises and falls with the three swooping arches and compresses into a crawl space at each of their apices. Staircases and sets of steel doors sandwich either end, leading into other recesses of the tunnel system. Scalding hot pipes snake along the sides, carrying vapors that typically exceed 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The space simultaneously seems sweltering from the steam and cold from the grimy liquid on the ground. Graffiti immortalizing past generations adorns the sticky walls, and the stuffy smell of stale air permanently lingers throughout the cramped corridor.
The names and illustrations scribbled on the sides of the tunnel reside as relics of an era when this forgotten world was far more accessible. Intrepid undergrads could venture down through trapdoors on the abutments and into the passageway. Homeless Cantabrigians would often go down there to find a warm, quiet shelter from the rough New England weather. What is a mere memory to us today was once an open secret around campus.
The Weeks tunnel began to be forgotten 60 years ago when security was tightened across the steam tunnels following a series of break-ins. The College started to see the space as a liability and security risk, and wanted to keep out both nosy students and the unhoused. Any information about the tunnels was carefully withheld from the public, and knowledge of it became diluted with every cohort of graduates.
Today, the only indications that the bridge might be more than a pretty structure are the heavy, internally padlocked metal panels interspersed at periodic intervals along its surface. We don’t question their purpose any more than we take time to marvel at the haunting, faded oak leaf impressions nearby.
Although this particular portal to the past has passed into obscurity, the John Weeks Bridge continues to be a conduit for our collective memories. As an important social hub on campus, it constantly serves as a catalyst for the creation of new stories, stories that will one day also be forgotten. Inherently a point of transition, the bridge stands as a testament of the transience and impermanence of the college experience.
Nevertheless, it is important to appreciate the remnants of history that we can salvage. Weeks Bridge also exists as a reminder to take a deeper look at what we’ve written off as commonplace or mundane. Every building, street, and landmark on campus holds a secret, and it’s up to us to uncover them. In doing this, we stop taking things for granted and learn to better value what we have before our transient college experience too comes to an end.
Adam V. Aleksic ’23 is a joint concentrator in Government and Linguistics in Kirkland House. His column “The Harvard Beneath Our Feet” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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