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Going underground: What’s become of Carleton’s tunnels

For most Carleton students, mentions of the infamous tunnels conjure up stories from alums and years past. Although they were closed in 1988, the lore surrounding their existence and closure is still abound on campus, as students trudge across the Bald Spot on snowy November days, cursing the lack of underground passages.

So what happened? Why are we walking through snow instead of using the many tunnels that run below campus, between buildings? After storing my bike in the Watson-Evans tunnel one summer, and finally seeing one of these tunnels in the flesh, I had the same questions on my mind. And I decided to do some digging.

“The first tunnels were constructed in 1910 when the original steam plant was being constructed and are mostly serving the west side of campus,” said Steven Spehn, Director of Facilities. “These original tunnels are smaller and were not designed or ever used as pedestrian tunnels. Their purpose was for the placement of steam lines that branched out from the central steam plant to the various buildings. Additional tunnels were added over time and the campus expanded and buildings added.”

According to a Carletonian article from 1990, the tunnels were originally closed in October 1988 after one Northfield teenager broke into the tunnels and knifed a swimmer in Cowling. What seemed like a temporary closure of the tunnels was met with student outcry, which only worsened when the closures became indefinite, as the administration cited further safety and security concerns. The tunnels also grew increasingly hazardous as the college expanded central cooling and used the tunnels as pipeways.

Another Carletonian article published shortly after the closing of the tunnels expressed regret at the College’s decision to do so. “The tunnels are an integral part of the Carleton campus and as such merit more consideration than has seemingly been afforded to them,” the columnist wrote.

A campus organization by the name of “Initiative” formed in the fall of 1989 in an effort to pressure the administration to re-open the tunnels. Initiative went on to sponsor “Tunnel Awareness Days” to publicize their campaign to re-open the tunnels through creating buttons and a “mock tunnel.” The organization was mostly sponsored by upperclassmen who had experienced the tunnels during their underclassmen years at Carleton, and who hoped to garner support from underclassmen, who arrived at Carleton after the tunnels had been shut off.

A Carletonian columnist who went by the name of “Tunnel Tina” and snuck into the tunnels in 1999 and documented her experience. To supplement her own writings, Tina interviewed a number of alums from the 80s who lamented the loss of the tunnels as a loss of important communal and social spaces as well as a loss of beloved tradition with historical continuity.

Steve Young, an alum from the mid 80s stated, “It was a way in which we could read what someone had painted there, had scrawled there, in 1965… of being in touch with the past. You really had the feeling of belonging to something.”

The tunnels seem to be particularly notable for their graffiti and for their role as a space for Carleton subculture to exist literally below ground. In speaking with alums about the tunnels, they often share and reminisce on irreverent and famed elements of tunnel “art,” particularly in the pedestrian passageways on the East side of campus. There’s the twister board painted onto the ground, the Yellow Brick Road, and a tunnel painted to look like a train terminal. But alongside these famed works of art, there are also political statements, notes to friends, poems, and odes to various floors (3rd Musser, 4th Watson), and groups on campus.

Today, although the graffiti and art still exist on the walls, the tunnels are used “mostly for utility routes for heating, cooling, electricity, phone, and data networking,” said Spehn, and are also not likely to reopen any time soon.

“At this point it is highly unlikely it would be these same tunnels. If there was interest [in reinstating the tunnels], it would likely have to be new tunnels,” Spehn added. A number of Carletonian articles over the years have examined the costs it would take to reopen or rebuild new tunnels, and despite their compelling arguments on the importance of the tunnels, construction is expensive and unlikely to commence any time soon.

Based on my brief foray into the tunnels, I too, like many alumni and students, emerged from the underground wanting more. Like “Tunnel Tina” said in 1999, “I left the tunnel feeling more a part of Carleton, more in tune with what it is to be a student here.”

One Comment

  1. Samuel Morelock Samuel Morelock November 22, 2019

    Still remember some of the Class A graffiti down there. I often wondered how the artists had that much time on their hands because some of it must have taken days or weeks to create. Also recall nearly laughable Carleton student males patrolling the tunnels with baseball bats after a female student was accosted down there by what we assumed was a townie in 1980. More dangerous to each other than possible weirdos.
    The College looks much better now above ground but it gets just as cold in January so I am sure the tunnels are sorely missed.

    SH Class of 1981

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