Unearthing the Underground

Unearthing the Underground

The Tunnels of Columbia University

Main image courtesy of anonymous

Published on April 13, 2016

It is a brisk afternoon, and we are standing outside John Jay Hall waiting for a tour of Columbia—but not one provided by the admissions office.

We glance at a grate beneath our feet. “We’ll be under there soon,” one of us says with some trepidation. We are both nervous, looking around frantically as if we are getting ready to do something terrible, about to get busted at any moment.

Moments later, we meet our unofficial tour guide, who asked to use the pseudonym Brian to avoid administrative consequences, and we begin the journey to our underground destination: Columbia’s tunnels.

Everyone has heard of the infamous Columbia tunnels: the abode of history, crime, and particle accelerators. But their hidden nature—the history, their present use, the invisible network of tunnelers they host—obstructs access and interpretation.

Despite the difficulty of access, these subterranean arteries remain alive in large part thanks to a loose fraternity of explorers whose motivations seem to be inquisitive at first. But over the course of a tunneler’s career, they become reflective, educational, and creative.

Not every tunneler has good intentions. One group, the Allied Destructive Hackers of Columbia that existed for a short time in 1986, sought to wreak havoc on the University through the tunnel system. ADHOC was a small clique of students led by Ken Hechtmen, a first-year at Columbia College at the time, that caused power outages, stole dangerous chemicals, and committed acts of petty theft through the tunnels.

But the tunnelers we talk to have different aims. Their disposition is unique: They are daring, enough so to motivate hours of exploration in the dark. But they are also curious and academic, spending hours toiling over old maps and online forums. They possess physical strength, yes, to shimmy through narrow gaps and climb over pipes, but also mental acuity.

A tunneler without the strength of mind to see beyond myth, without examining the genuine history, life, and beauty in the abandoned latticework beneath campus, will not get very far before giving up.

We get to the stairs of Hamilton where we transition from the familiar aura of academia to a foreign atmosphere of exploration. The ceilings become a bit lower, the temperature a bit warmer. The first room we enter is large, filled with pipes and machinery. The space, unlike the tunnel we just left, is well-lit and well-maintained.

This is Hamilton’s basement, one of the few tunnels on campus explicitly open to student and faculty use. For the past 20 years—and probably longer—students and faculty have used the system to get from Hamilton to Kent to Philosophy in a rush.  

We walk down the corridor. A ladder rests on a wall covered in graffiti. Our tour guide points up to a pathway. He says it leads to a crawl space underneath Buell Hall. We look at one another, take a deep breath, and start to climb. We find ourselves in a narrow, cramped, musty tunnel. It seems as if we have transitioned to a liminal space between history and the present day.

Buell Hall, or the Maison Française, is the last remaining building of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, the institution that previously occupied Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. In the 1900s, the asylum was knocked down—that is, all except Buell.

Buell is not historically important merely because it is the oldest building on campus, though. It also marks a connection to the city that lies beneath Columbia’s campus. The crawl space under Buell, the oldest part of campus, marks the point from which the rest of Columbia’s tunnel system grew.

Every day, students walk atop this expansive underground world holding decades of history just waiting to be uncovered. This is our chance to take a look beneath the surface. The tunnels we saw have been used for a variety of different purposes. Rail tracks, which once transported coal for heating, span the floor. Graffiti—emails, tags, inside jokes—line the walls. The stories of the history we researched echo through the snaking corridors.

These are the corridors through which journalists from Spectator and WKCR, Columbia’s radio station, received and reported on information during the sit-in protests of 1968. Once officials found out, the tunnels became the source of the protesters’ undoing.

In the early morning of April 30, 1968, police officers barricaded the entrances of all five buildings both underground and above. Students were forcibly removed and escorted back through the tunnels. In the end, 628 students were arrested and 92 were badly injured.

Spanning generations, the tunnelers with whom we talked made it their mission to keep stories like these—hidden in the underground spaces—alive. These tunnelers have made hobbies, careers, and art out of what they found. To understand what the tunnels mean to Columbia is to come to terms with the tunnelers themselves.

Willing to dig

“My first tunnel experience was climbing through those tunnels in Hamilton in a towel for like two and a half hours,” Brian explains.

It was four in the morning when a fire alarm went off in Brian’s dorm. While waiting outside, he and his friends decided to explore the underground. He did not think to put clothes on before leaving the building and ended up exploring in a towel.

For Brian, the inspiration to begin a tunneling career was more random than calculated. But where these chance encounters could have led to nothing more, they instead motivated a lasting commitment to tunneling in those to whom we talked.

Brian sought, in the months that followed, to replicate the awe he felt during that first experience. He was, at first, a believer in what he terms “impulsive” tunneling, hoping to use his first spontaneous experience to inform his later approach.

As friends turned to resources like WikiCU to navigate the underground, Brian refused to rely on online guides. He felt they would prevent his experience from feeling authentic. For the first month and half of his adventures, he wanted every tunneling adventure to feel spontaneous and uninhibited. Brian enjoyed the feeling of groping around in the dark to find his path.

But eventually, the draw to learn more defeated the desire to replicate the spontaneity of his initial adventure, and his methods became more formalized. Brian began to seek out information on tunnels he may not have found by researching them in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and checking his own knowledge against the guides on WikiCU.

Though rare, this reaction to a random introduction to the tunnel system spans across generations of Columbia students. An initial expedition into the underground lattices burgeons into a gripping curiosity.

Steve Duncan, who graduated from Columbia College in 2002, was enrolled in a calculus class in fall of 1996 during his first semester. He had procrastinated doing his homework, for which he needed software on the math lab computers. The night before the assignment was due, he went to the lab but it was locked. He asked a tunneler he knew to bring him to the labs. Instead of going with him to the lab, the tunneler gave Duncan a set of complicated directions and went back to his dorm.

Duncan got lost that first night underground, but he was happy about it. “I think I made it to the math building eventually,” he recollects. “But what I remember is poking around the tunnels, and it was just awesome. It was like being on mushrooms. You see the giant pipes and valves sticking up, and you think, this is a lot cooler than calculus.

After that first encounter with the tunnels, Duncan became obsessed with Columbia’s underground system. He returned back to the tunnels constantly—which, he jokes, may have resulted in a C in his math class. Around the same time, he got a job shelving at Avery Library, which expanded his interest to New York City’s underground at large.

Duncan’s extreme commitment to tunneling was evident from the beginning—he was willing to do anything to get underground. When we ask him how he found fellow tunnelers at Columbia, he explains that it had been a source of frustration. At first, he could not find anyone as devoted as him, anyone as willing to dig.

We then ask him how he eventually found that devoted contingent—who, as we have experienced reporting this story—are difficult to find. He looks at us quizzically.

“The thing is, you’re assuming those people…” He fumbles a bit, trying to find the correct words. “Why aren’t you assuming they might not have any interest in talking to you? I don’t mean that in a harsh way, I just mean, follow it through—what benefit would accrue to somebody like that to talk to you, if they don’t have an existing presence and they are not motivated by a desire for publicity or to educate others?”

He gestures at his shelves, overflowing with tools and books about New York City. “Let’s say this ‘community,’”—a word he hates, as he explains to us later—“does exist. If you are not part of it, why would you know about it? But if you go over to somebody’s house, and you see that they have this kind of shit, then you might talk to them about it,” he says.

As Duncan says these words, he strikes a lock pick against the table, his voice rising and falling with the metronomic beat. It is as if the tunneler and his tools are one: thinking through one mouth, speaking through one brain. Duncan’s pastime has become a part of him.

Duncan has ultimately created a career of his tunneling. He spends his time exploring the hidden spaces of New York and other cities. He has visited rooftops, sewer pipes, subway rails, and transport tunnels, and he documents them to the public.

“It was really strange to just walk in and see all that right under where I used to study for five years. Always passing above but never knowing what was happening underneath.”

—Miru Kim, CC’03

At Columbia, Duncan did eventually find someone else who had integrated tunneling into their life the way he does: artist Miru Kim, who graduated from Columbia College in 2003, and who had a prior interest in New York City’s underground before exploring Columbia’s tunnels.

Kim had her first encounter with the tunnels in 2005, as an MFA student at Pratt Institute from which she graduated in 2006. She had heard about the tunnels while a student at Columbia, but she didn’t explore them until after she had graduated. Kim came back to campus after having explored the underground subway system in New York.

When she came back to Columbia to explore the tunnels, she found that her past familiarity with the school made her explorations all the more meaningful. “It was really strange to just walk in and see all that right under where I used to study for five years,” she says. “Always passing above but never knowing what was happening underneath.”

Her photos from these endeavors became the material for her master’s thesis and the inspiration for her career. Today, she is known for her nude photos taken in abandoned spaces throughout the world.

Kim poses underground in Columbia's tunnels. (Courtesy of Miru Kim)

All three of these tunnelers—Brian, Duncan, and Kim—have courage, curiosity, and a love of adventure of course. But these three tunnelers are also dedicated to honing their craft. They see the history, the life, and the beauty in the abandoned: qualities that dictate the experience, that make it enjoyable. And then they share that with the rest of us.

Documenting the underground

It is clear that Duncan is not an explorer who wants to sequester his findings from the public. He publishes his photographs online, shares his ideas on his blogs, and talks to the press. But why?

As he says multiple times over the course of our interview, urban explorers have nothing to gain from sharing the information they collect from the dangerous and presumably forbidden tasks they undertake. Yet the information they publish has been central to their lives, whether that is through a desire to share it or the ambition to create art.

Duncan has decided to create a visible public presence, because he feels a deep calling to educate the public on infrastructure. This desire suffuses his entire body of work: from his philosophy on urban exploration to his photographs of the spaces he enters.

Duncan is clear to specify that he is a documentarian. He is on a mission to change the way the public conceives their relation to infrastructure, and photography is his tool of choice.

His best photographs of the underground capture the initial feeling of awe he feels when entering these enigmatic, historically charged, and often beautiful spaces. One of us notes, as we look at the photographs lining the wall, that they all seem to open up on an environment—as if they were luring the viewer in. He thanks us for our comment, saying this is something he aims to capture with his work.

“The pictures that I have taken—the ones that have succeeded most— [have] a passageway, or doorway, or some continuation of the picture that makes you want to know what’s just around the bend,” he speculates. “That makes you think, ‘Damn, I would like to go there.’ If you get that feeling, I think it has totally worked.”

With these dramatic photographs, he aims to get his viewers to understand what, to him, has become a fact of life: These awe-inspiring spaces are theirs to explore.

“We somehow think of [water supply systems that] as soon as something comes out of the faucet it’s part of my private space.” Duncan gestures at his sink.

“But as soon as it goes another foot and hits the street, it’s no longer my responsibility—not even that—that I’m not even allowed to think about it.” He believes this idea prohibits people from thinking critically about their right to see the hidden infrastructure of their cities.

“I’m not at all clear in my own head [on] how it’s possible to commit trespass on public property. If you are a member of the public, [you should have] a deep sense of stewardship and responsibility to the urban environment in which you live and of which you are a part.”

Duncan establishes Kim’s aim as different than his. Kim, he says, is an artist. For her, the tunnels act as a venue for her art.

Kim appreciates the aesthetic and symbolic value of the tunnels more than the role they play in infrastructure or urban design for her MFA project.

“It was a creative project, and I wanted to make it more poetic rather than documentary photos,” she comments. “I see them as a subconscious of the city,” Kim says of the tunnels. “They are forgotten spaces that contain memories.”

But Kim’s photos brings these “forgotten spaces” to life. She most enjoyed taking photos in  rooms filled with massive machinery. “It’s like being in a city of machines,” she says.

Yet, her presence in these photos manages to give technical appliances a pulse of their own. “I knew I wanted a living figure in the photo,” she says as she explains to me that she sees abandoned places as being reclaimed by nature.

“I wanted to be in the photos. I wanted to be a part of that nature.”

Risks and rewards

There are physical dangers, though, that cannot be ignored in tunneling. Brian has found himself in few treacherous situations. He remembers crawling through an area of massive pipes under Hamilton. “There was a 1 foot wide gap, and half the pipes [were] freezing cold while half of them [were] boiling,” he says to us as he leads the way underground.

As for getting caught, he remembers accidentally pushing open a door underneath Mudd that he later realized said “fire escape” on the other side. “I may or may not have made the fire alarm go off in Mudd that day,” he says.

But despite the risks inherent to the uncertain legality of tunneling, Brian is committed to exploration, and he does not turn a blind eye to the things he sees underground. He feels an obligation to take part in any issue he sees while underground.

“If I saw something that was an issue for facilities, I would send them an anonymous email.”

Brian acknowledges the potential risk that accompanies sharing certain technical information with the public. When groups like ADHOC find out about the tunnels, they can use that knowledge perniciously.

However, it is true, as Duncan says, that “Columbia students want to learn, and they want to be able to use toilets in Avery, so they don’t want to shut off the water.”

But a tunneling demographic comprised of college students—not exactly an age associated with examined decision-making—means their motives may be destructive rather than peaceful.

Historical precedent demonstrates this duality: For every example of students using the space peacefully, there is one of damage caused.

On the one hand, students have found creative uses for the tunnels. A 1954 Spectator article stated that the tunnels beneath Kent were home to a rifle range so that the rifle team could practice. The team took advantage of the insulative effects of the pipes, using them to block the noise.

In 1958, the rifle team began practicing and welcomed “all interested in the sport for recreation,” in addition to those on the competitive team. An article soliciting first-year shooters instructs students to enter the range entrance, the tunnel underneath Kent, by going down through Hamilton—the very path we took in our “tour”—or through Kent or Philosophy.

But on the other hand, ADHOC once infamously used the tunnels to steal chemicals from labs and cause power outages. Before their crime spree, criminal activity in 1955 caused the first serious shut down of the tunnels, as a Spectator article reported that thieves were stealing “thousands of dollars worth of electric typewriters, dictating machines, tape recorders, and calculators” that they accessed through the underground passageways. Brian feels that ADHOC ruined the chance for later generations to explore the tunnels freely.

The temptations accessible in the tunnels facilitate risk-taking, in terms of how students care for not only their personal safety, but also for the historical material around them.

Columbia’s cyclotron, a particle accelerator that was left to rest in the foundation of Pupin Hall years after the Manhattan Project, is an object that intones that kind of siren song. According to Duncan, he was the first to discover the cyclotron, along with debris left over from the project in the late 1990s. It was untouched. At first, he kept things confidential, telling only a few friends.

The Cyclotron, the particle accelerator found under Pupin, photographed in 1999 before Duncan's blog post. (Courtesy of Steve Duncan)

Kim was one of the explorers Duncan showed the cyclotron to under Pupin. She remembers squeezing through a small space just before the tunnel opened up to a massive basement left in ruins. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, the cyclotron had been used for experiments up until 1965. “They just left it like was in the ’70s,” she says.

However, Duncan eventually wrote about it in a blog post, effectively turning it into a “destination” for tunnelers.

He went back to visit the site in 2006 and found that the cyclotron was completely covered with graffiti. “Half the shit in that room said ‘NASA—critical space equipment.’ That kind of shit is fun,” he remarks in frustration.

“This is the kind of space where, even though it’s a bunch of boring gray walls, nothing is added by tagging it up.”

The Cyclotron photographed in 2006 after Duncan's blog post. (Courtesy of Steve Duncan)

Kim remembers some graffiti that was recognizable—similar symbols or names throughout—but she commented that most of it was rather “nerdy.” She explained the word “rat” spelled “R@” as an example of this. We later realized that, coincidentally, the R@ tags were the signatures of Steve Duncan, early in his tunneling career. Kim was not aware.

The three tunnelers we met found this graffiti a bit annoying, saying they had more of an interest in peaceful exploration.

For Kim, her appreciation for the space overpowered her desire to leave a mark. Like the other tunnelers we met, Kim did not find lasting satisfaction in making her physical imprint on a space. She wanted to be a part of the space, not change it.

“I never crossed the boundaries where you’re not supposed to go or trespassed,” she says. “I never put a single mark in the tunnels, but there was graffiti everywhere.”

While there are risks of sharing this information—as, unlike these three tunnelers, others are likely to transgress those unstated boundaries—the tunnels nonetheless offer an education not to be underestimated, a merit that might justify their introduction to the public. Through them, visitors can learn. “More information is generally a good thing,” Duncan says.

All the tunnelers we talked to support increases in accessibility. They believe that the stories that lie beneath the surface of Columbia can be valuable to students, who might find inspiration in the depths of this institutional history.

Brian has considered putting together a map and guide of the underground and hiding them somewhere deep in the tunnels. He wants this opportunity for adventure to be passed on to those who are devoted and genuinely interested. And he believes that for those students, the tunnels should be open.

Tunneling, for Brian, is a skill to be used in many aspects of life. “I think that the ability to get to places generally comes in handy,” he says. “The ability to bypass locks, get on rooftops, get underneath things, you never know when that will come in handy.” Tunneling could be yet another skill a student could hone while at Columbia.

Kim feels that it is important to preserve the history of the tunnels, and one can understand why. Her work underground gained her national attention. She was approached by the New York Times hoping to do an article on her work, and she ended up bringing the journalist down to the tunnels with her. Later, she was featured in Esquire and then asked to do a TED Talk.

However, the accessibility of the tunnels has not persisted throughout the years. When Kim explored the tunnels, all the doors were open to anyone who was curious. But today, she is uncertain about whether or not the tunnels should be reopened.

“If anything, I think that would bring more people under, because when you show people the first 5 feet, they are going to want to go the next 500.”

—Brian

“I know that I wouldn’t do anything bad, but it’s possible that somebody could go in and mess with the system. So for safety reasons, it makes sense that they would close it,” she says. “But they should have an organized tour so that students can still experience it.”

When we ask if she feels that an organized tour might ruin the mystery of the tunnels, she replies, “Well, it’s better than not being able to see them at all.”

We also ask Brian if he knows anything about the tours of the tunnels that were led by Columbia College Student Council in 2003, and if he thinks they should be renewed today.

“I have no idea where they were bringing people,” he says. “I would assume it was only a few places. If anything, I think that would bring more people under, because when you show people the first 5 feet, they are going to want to go the next 500.”

Brian’s answer exposes something interesting about tunneling: Even if accessibility increases, those who get the most out of the tunnels will still be those who devote their energies to it, who go those next 500 feet.

But at least for now, perhaps there is another unique, hidden course in the Core Curriculum, accessible only to a certain breed of students willing to break with both convention and, potentially, the law.

As Duncan says, “Today’s urban explorers are tomorrow’s historical preservationists.”

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