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Way Back at Mac: Tunnel vision

“Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could get to class without going outside in the winter? Without setting foot in the polar vortex?” asked countless Macalester students. Some students may know that there actually is a way to get to any building on campus without subjecting a single toe to sub-zero temperatures. How? Tunnels, of course! The extensive network of tunnels under the Macalester campus is mostly home to heating pipes, wires and dust and is closed off to wandering students hoping to wear Birks year round. However, since its creation in the 1950s, the allure of secret underground tunnels has captured the imagination and curiosity of decades of Macalester students.

In the fall of 1951, the Macalester community saw the completion of the student union. With the creation of a new building came additional piping and plumbing and the excavation of tunnels to house such equipment. Though such tunnels undoubtedly existed prior to 1951, The Mac Weekly archives indicate that the tunnel system became more extensive and navigable in the 1950s.

Throughout the 20th century, numerous groups of explorers and solo adventurers braved the underground hoping to set foot in the infamous tunnel network. The year 1951 marked the completion of the tunnels that housed the original heating pipe network, but pioneers didn’t start reporting accounts of their expeditions until the 1980s. Though the archives aren’t explicit in what exactly marked this shift, it seems as though the tunnel system became more heavily policed toward the end of the 20th century. For some reason, exploring the tunnel system became more popular, prompting security guards to place padlocks on entrances to the tunnels.

View of the tunnels. Photo courtesy of Macalester archives.

The Mac Weekly reported in March of 1973 that the tunnels from the dining hall to Doty had to be fitted with locks as groceries went missing from the cafeteria, presumably because students were absconding into the tunnels with stolen goodies. The fact that this activity was not allowed appeared to have added to the appeal as numerous students came forward to share stories of their journeys through the depths.

One of the first underground tunnel exposés came in 1982. In a Feb. 5 edition of The Mac Weekly, Barb Bremner described the tunnels as an unknown frontier. She estimated the tunnels to be approximately three feet in width and four feet in height but appearing much smaller due to the heating pipes along the walls. This student scurried along the passageway until looking up through a manhole and spotting the flagpole at the center of campus. This first account brings to light a general publication pattern. Nearly every student chronicle is followed by a letter to the editor warning against the dangers of tunnel exploration. Such a letter published on Feb. 12, 1982 warned that the tunnels were not a playground for bored students, rather a dangerous area where students can get seriously hurt from hot pipes and low ceilings.

However, Macalester students were not deterred. One group of students in an interim film class in 1985 actually created a short film about a student who got lost in the tunnel system. Entitled “The Long Walk,” a student got lost after a party and wandered into the underground passageways. Evidently, the plot necessitated the film crew and actors to get comfy in the dark and confined spaces under our campus. Although some students appeared to get along without a hitch, others were not so lucky. On April 15, 1994, three security guards caught three students attempting to enter the tunnels through one of the dorms, prompting the facilities to quickly secure the entrance.

In December of 1995, one anonymous tunneling expert shared their tips for avoiding detection noting that they always explored the tunnels solo and also never told anyone about their adventures. However, this explorer also played down the intrigue of the system. They reported that the tunnels “aren’t as grandiose as legends make them out to be.” Quelling myths of hidden treasures, the student reassured, “the tunnels are closed off not because the administration is hiding a retro 70s disco but because they are unsafe and pretty boring.”

A few brave souls ventured into the labyrinth even before they were officially students. While visiting as a prospective first year, Brian Ellsworth ’98 heard about a secret underground network and couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Ellsworth and a few other prospective first years, led by their hosts, snaked underground from the dorms, across Grand and over to the Chapel. Rather than scaring him away, Ellsworth claimed the experience defined his overnight visit in demonstrating that “Macalester was a place of teamwork, adventure and experiential learning.” Let’s call it a Mac Moment.

Because the tunnels really were just created to house plumbing and electrical work, some have brainstormed how to show students this reality and dissuade them from entering. An October 30, 1997 letter to the editor suggested bringing students into the tunnel system during orientation thereby dispelling rumors of a fabulous hidden oasis. This idea clearly had some liability issues (i.e. if a valve happened to burst during orientation, severely burned students = legal nightmare). The administration opted for a different approach: simply making the entrances of the tunnels more secure, as they are today. So, if you’re looking for adventure, I suppose if there’s a will, there’s a way, but, if you are looking for retro disco, perhaps head downtown, not underground.

Staff Writer

Katrin O'Grady (she/her/hers) is a senior from Sherborn. MA. She is currently a staff writer. She has been on the staff since fall 2015.

February 21, 2019

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