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The truth about Brown’s tunnels

Thursday, March 15, 2007

With stories of robberies, pranks and even rape coloring their history, the tunnels running beneath Brown’s campus are sites of well-worn rumors about the University.

But few know the truth about the intricate system of passageways and crawlspaces that snake their way beneath campus buildings, fields and quadrangles. Students have fabricated and exaggerated some details – and have forgotten others.

“I’ve heard that around Wriston, all of the buildings are connected by underground tunnels,” said Kurt Roediger ’07. “But the administration closed them off because of muggings and rapes.”

“There are tunnels under Keeney,” said Molly Cohen ’09. “They’re really hot and muddy, though.”

Roediger and Cohen have never been able to verify or deny these rumors. They may have seen a mysterious door or poked their heads through an entrance, but most of their information has come from friends and upperclassmen who pass on fantastical tales of a subterranean world.

“Students have big imaginations,” said Jim Coen, director of maintenance and service operations for Facilities Management. “But there is some truth to what they say.”

History and origins

Most tunnels beneath the campus were constructed during the University’s significant physical expansion spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Of the four main passages confirmed by Coen – under Wriston Quadrangle, Andrews Hall, Keeney Quadrangle and the John Hay Library – the one beneath Andrews Hall is the oldest.

The Pembroke campus was expanded in 1947 with the construction of Andrews Hall, which connected Metcalf and Miller halls. Photographs taken a year earlier show a pair of walls under construction at the lowest level of the building.

“There’s a sub-basement corridor that leads from Andrews to Champlin (Hall),” Coen said. “It could technically take you to the Verney-Woolley Dining Hall.”

Nan Sumner-Mack AM’71 PhD’82, assistant to the director for programs and development at the John Carter Brown Library, said she remembers seeing students take the route from Champlin to Andrews Dining Hall.

“If it was ever raining, snowing or just really cold, people would crowd into the tunnel and then come up into the dining hall, never having gone outside,” she said.

Alan Bliek, an architect for Facilities Management, said the Andrews tunnel was meant for maintenance, not transportation. But Bliek admitted he also used the tunnel during the winter months of the late 70s. “It also happens to be a convenient route,” he said.

The next major tunnel system to be built was the fabled network under Wriston Quad.

Named for Brown’s 11th president, Henry Wriston, the quad opened in the early 50s and provided students with fraternity housing and the Sharpe Refectory. Beneath the surface of the quad, a tunnel circuit connects the fraternities to each other and to the Ratty.

“The tunnels under Wriston were originally set up so that the fraternities could get to the dining hall without going outside,” Bliek said.

But only a few years after their construction, plans were underway to use the tunnels for a very different purpose.

“In the ’60s, everyone was so worried about nuclear war, so certain areas of the University were designated as bomb shelters, including the Wriston tunnels,” said Raymond Butti, library associate specialist at the University archives in the John Hay Library. “Food and water were even brought in, in case of an emergency.”

A 1963 letter from William Davis, then director of plant, housing and food operations, outlined the plan to use the tunnels to shelter 260 people. Another letter listed supplies such as crackers, water cans and sanitation and medical kits that were brought into the tunnels.

Bliek said he recalled seeing “radioactive protection signs” during a visit to the tunnels many years ago. Fortunately, the tunnels never had to be used for protection, radioactive or otherwise.

Three years after the completion of Wriston Quad, construction started on West Quadrangle, now known as Keeney. West Quad features a small crawlspace under the floor of the building’s bottom levels.

“There are no tunnels under Keeney,” Coen said. “There is what you might call a crawlspace between the floor slab and the ground.”

Though not intended for transportation, the Keeney crawlspace runs beneath the entire quad with entrances throughout the complex.

“It’s full of pipes and is not a very safe place to be,” Coen said. “Besides, if you wanted to get down there, it would be on your hands and knees in dirt.”

The last tunnel Coen described is a utility tunnel connecting the John Hay Library to Carrie Tower.

“They’ve never been used for transportation like the Wriston tunnels,” Coen said. “People inspect the tunnel once a year, but that’s about the only time someone is down there.”

Butti said the tunnel was constructed in 1964, the same year the Rockefeller Library was completed.

The tunnels today

Since their construction some 50 years ago, rumors about the tunnels have spread, gaining wild details and losing accuracy with each generation.

“There are so many rumors circulating, it’s hard even for employees of the University to determine what’s true and what isn’t,” Butti said.

At present, the spaces beneath Andrews Hall, Wriston Quad, Keeney Quad and the John Hay Library are closed, some permanently.

The tunnel beneath Andrews Hall is now only accessible through a series of locked doors that only Facilities Management personnel can open. Wriston Quad’s tunnels are also locked, with added security inside.

“Even when you go down into the tunnel, there are padlocked iron gates that limit your ability to go farther,” Coen said. The tunnel leading to the Ratty has been sealed by a brick wall.

The closure of the Wriston tunnels has sparked many student rumors, most involving illegal behavior.

“I heard rumors they were shut down because some girl got raped in them,” said Flynn Berry ’08.

“I think they were bricked up because frats were stealing food from the Ratty,” said David Kern ’09.

Though no officials confirmed that a sexual assault took place, Coen said there might be truth to supposed fraternity-related mischief. But he wasn’t certain.

“Rumors were that the frats used to sneak into the tunnels and prank each other,” he said.

More serious measures have been put in place at both entrances to the John Hay tunnel.

“The Hay has a lot of very valuable items,” Coen said. “The tunnels themselves are equipped with a silent alarm, and right now there is a two-ton granite block covering the entrance (to Carrie Tower).”

Still, the University’s measures haven’t stopped students from breaking into the underground passages.

“The Hay tunnel was broken into fairly recently,” Butti said. “I came to work one day and heard that someone tried to break into the Hay by gaining access into the tunnel.”

Coen acknowledged that students had broken into the Wriston tunnels on multiple occasions, but he wouldn’t go into any detail about the incidents.

“We have a lot of very clever engineering students,” he said. “I don’t want to tip them off and then have to figure out a more ingenious way to curb their activities.”

The tunnels beneath Wriston bear graffiti depicting fraternity symbols and crests. Beer cans and bottles litter the watery passageway.

Beer cans and plastic wrappers also lie in the crevices of the Andrews Hall tunnel, and garbage covers the floor. Under Keeney, messages written by mischievous students such as “Take a walk on the wild side!” suggest student activity in the tunnels.

Coen cautioned students against breaking in.

“There’s not much down there for them to damage, but the pipes are hot, there are sharp objects and students could get seriously hurt,” he said. “Someone unfamiliar with the mechanisms would be in danger.”

Though Butti agreed that the tunnels are unsafe, he admitted that the allure of exploring a tunnel is tempting.

“Obviously it’s not going to be the safest place on campus,” he said. “But I can see why someone would want to go down there – I’ve been in a tunnel myself.”

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  1. what about rats and mice ? The article clearly states garbage is under there too. How many babies does one rat have at a time? 15-20?

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