Discovering Macalester's true underground scene

By Christy MacGillivray

The tunnels running underneath Macalester College have grown to be something of a legend. Rumored to extend from Dupre to Olin-Rice, Doty to the Fine Arts Building, the story of the tunnels has led some students to believe that a network of pipes and passages exists underneath the college. This epic has, for years, caused many a curious first-year to slip under the grate, past the security guard and into the darkness beneath. “We are human beings and so we are naturally curious about the unknown,” said Mark Dickinson, head of Facilities Management and supervisor of building matenance on campus. “The tunnels are a natural source of that curiosity because they are sealed off, but after you go in there for the first time, the luster quickly wears away.”

This is probably because the majority of the tunnels running underneath the college, save for those frequented between Doty and Wallace, are either stream line passages, built to distribute vaporized water from the central heating facility or fiberoptic cables running throughout a system of tributaries and into the various buildings on campus.

“The tunnels are purely for mechanical purposes, and we never go into them unless necessary-say if there is a water leak or condensation,” Dickinson continued. “They’re very awkward, you have to bend down to walk in them. There are sharp corners and overhangs. It is definitely not a safe place for people to be.”

But the element of danger hasn’t hindered students from venturing into the forbidden underbelly of the college. For some, it has only increased the allure.

“We first found out about the tunnels from a homeless guy at a bus stop, claiming to be a graduate of Mac,” said one regular Macalester-tunnel spelunker. “He said that there were hidden passages connecting everything on campus, and gave us a detailed mental map outlining how to find facilities on campus, service points, and some broken keys on how to find mysteriously locked doors.”

Naturally, the students were curious.

“We were quite interested, and started to go down there on a very regular basis” the spelunker said. “But in going down there we found that there were many people who were trying to do the same thing, and it got to be a problem with all of the traffic, there were people smoking pot, messing around, that kind of thing. Therein came the security officers.”

“We don’t want students in there for a reason-the tunnels are very dangerous,” Dickinson said.

And they are. In the winter, the tunnels carry enough heat to warm the entire campus, and the pressure generated from this force is enough to seriously injure anyone who ventures down there–especially those who don’t know exactly what they are doing.

“In the winter they are way too dangerous,” said the spelunker, who, for now, has retired from the tunnels because of the cold weather. “But in the summer they aren’t being used. If you are swift and can sneak past the security guards, you can find some pretty fun places to sneak into. I don’t want to divulge too many secrets, but we’ve definitely gotten into several places that were locked.”

The excitement generated by this testimony, in addition to many others, is exactly what Facilities Management is trying to dispel.

“They’re really not that cool,” Dickinson said. “In fact, if there are any students that are curious about them, I would much rather show them the tunnels than have people break into them. It’s a lot like if someone wants a men’s room sign, or some other novelty item from campus. We would rather that they just ask for one. Instead, people deface them and we have to replace them. Remember, just ask. It’s a lot easier for everyone.”

Dickinson’s offer is a generous one–and his insistance on the banality of the tunnels is compelling. But unfortunately, the same natural curiosity Dickinson referenced earlier has caused the mystery of the tunnels to surpass the reality of the system. Until a concrete reference has been communicated or security is deemed impenetrable, students will continue to be seduced into the darkness below, and the tunnels will forever go down as a source of campus history.