Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Tunnel Vision

<st students have the scoop- beneath Carleton’s campus extends a tunnel system that students once used. While this winter we bonded over the record lows, the tradition of bravery is cut off somewhere in the distancing past, 1989 to be exact, when the tunnels were sealed, a time when Carls didn’t own coats and would go to class in bikinis in January, all because they could walk through tunnels that connected the campus’ largest buildings.

After a winter like this, could the tunnels come again? Though most Carls treat the tunnels as history instead of a political issue, echoes of tunnel-lust still resonate. In the recent CSA elections, Eric Angell, a candidate for the 2015 Class representatives, hoped for, alongside “Nelly for Spring Concert and a new building for the sciences”, the reinstatement of the tunnel system. Yet Angell found a tunnel reinstatement platform unsuccessful, perhaps because of the starry eyed ignorance it requires, or because open tunnels are too distant an ideal for today’s students.

But ask around, and interest remains. The inquisitive types have learned about the “cave paintings” below- cryptic and quirky art that covers the passages, including the famous Twister board between Watson and Myers and the Yellow Brick Road to Nourse.

English Professor Susan Jaret McKinstry, who arrived at Carleton shortly before the tunnels were closed in 1989, has fond memories of the tunnels. “[they] were full of wonderful, apt art – as you neared each building, the walls were decorated by majors (literary quotes near Laird, music by the music building). Before the tunnels closed, they inspired an extraordinary site-specific musical composition, where the audience walked through the tunnels and heard different, overlapping pieces by a Carleton composer.”

Despite their imaginative value and beauty, tunnel access is now highly restricted. Originally built as a system of steam ducts in the early 1900s, maintenance now uses the tunnels to run plumbing, HV/AC, and electrical conduits, filling old pedestrian walk ways. “The tunnels are much more crowded than they were years ago,” Said Maintenance Manager Mitch Miller.  “Some of the oldest tunnels barely have enough room to crawl through them.” If they were to be reopened, insurance for pedestrian tunnels would be very expensive, and extremely extensive infrastructural reworking would need to be done.

Even if you’re willing to duck pipes, it’s some folks’ job to keep you out of there. Tunnel exits are armed with alarms, notifying security when used without approved access.Even if you’re willing to duck pipes, it’s some folks’ job to keep you out of there. Tunnel exits are armed with alarms, notifying security when used without approved access. When Evans was remodeled in 2012, one could simply hop over a construction fence to gain tunnel access, but that opportunity has ended.

While rumors persist of entry points across campus, only those willing to brave security gain access. And despite possible shenanigans, official entrances still remain alarm locked and barred from public access, such as the ominous and cryptic “Wa. B. Tu.” door below Watson.

Asked why the tunnels were closed, Head of Security Wayne Eisenhuth listed “ [a] Long history of sexual assaults, assaults, vandalism, medical emergencies, harassment, fires, disorderly conduct, trespassing, etc.” Eisenhuth was firm in his assurance that they would not be reopened.

The events, to which Eisenhuth refers, that incited the tunnels’ 1990 closure chill the imagination. In 1989, a group of townies with a knife assaulted a swimmer in Cowling.

In a separate incident, a woman hit her head on a circuit box and passed out, accompanied only by chance by friends able to call for help.
For years prior to the closure, malignant vandals found their expression in tunnels by breaking lights and later painting over their shatterproof covers.

Stronger than hopes for the reopening of the tunnels sound widespread acknowledgments of the task’s improbability. In an email on Sunday, Student Body President Matthew Fitzgerald wrote “As I understand it, the tunnels are pretty much closed forever (for safety and logistical reasons).” Fitzgerald was quite familiar with the story of the tunnels; the topic has been covered extensively since their closing, with waning hopefulness and rising sentimentality. Proactive campaigners gave way to veritable historians who hash the tunnels out primarily as an anti-authoritarian illustration. A 2010 editorial on the issue begins “Once upon a time, Carleton was a magical place”, continuing on to rant about the administrations’ dissembling of trust and student privileges.

Eisenhuth is not deaf to tradition-based appeals. He was Director of Security in 1990 when the tunnels were closed. At the time he was quoted as saying, “Nobody wants to close the tunnels; they’re part of Carleton. But right now there’s just no way we can guarantee the safety of the people.”

Perhaps they were part of Carleton in 1990, but they have phased from attention since then. A 1995 Carletonian article begins with the lamentation “Blessed with space which swards all the carrels in the gibe the biggest stall in existence put together, the happy troglodyte cave painter might work for years and not be able to finish decorating the whole labyrinth.”

Though the tunnels were the literal underground canvas of 80s, and the figurative underground canvas of the 90s, campus has since then seen the birth and evolution of the CLAP, not to mention digital social media. “[The tunnels] were… a distinctive element of Carleton’s culture, here on the bitterly cold prairie, and added to the sense of wit and place,” writes Professor McKinstry.

But are Carls willing to face impossible adversity to regain physical landscapes when print and digital expression are now so easy?

Waning tunnelphilia is as old as tunnel closure itself. In February, 1990, “Tunnels Awareness Days” was held in the Sayles-Hill Great Space. Upperclassman advocates, who enjoyed open access to the tunnels in their early years, aggressively campaigned for tunnel reopening, attempting to convey the experience of tunnel decoration by creating a “Mock Tunnel”. Activists encouraged freshmen, who missed the open tunnel years, to “graffiti” the fake wall. Even  then, a sad disinterest pervades the post-tunnel generation; SaraJane Lentz’s article covering the event quotes a first year student saying “I don’t think it’s that big a deal. I don’t think you can justify spending the money [to reopen the tunnel].”

Memories of the tunnels fade, their romantic coats peel, and faced with the immense, likely impossible, challenge of reopening, Carls today turn their heads. Perhaps, satisfied with the reality of endings, all we want is the stories, of which mystery and distance are delectable characteristics.

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Carletonian

Your donation will support the student journalists of Carleton College. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Carletonian

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *