Hillside tunnels: what lies beneath
While storage lockers and attics in Mary Low, Piper and Grossman hold the allure of hosting long forgotten goods, few places on campus furnish the kind of intrigue that surrounds the system of tunnels underneath the Hillside Complex. Some people find that sifting through misplaced belongings, discarded assets, and outmoded commodities provides them with a certain sense of exhilaration. However, navigating the secret tunnels of Hillside requires a whole new level of audacity. What started out as an article about storage spaces and their contents led to a casual inquisition into the Hillside tunnels, thereby resulting in a far more appealing story. The following is a multifaceted documentation of the history of students’ exploits in the College’s tunnel system.
The COOT2 locker, attics and other basements certainly do contain noteworthy items. The attics, especially, which are made somewhat inaccessible because of their pull-down doors, are worth exploring. One student recounted the story of a friend who “found an old model skeleton” in the Piper attic. Even the COOT2 locker in Mary Low contains an array of functional goods. Nevertheless, picking through a variety of random objects can only provide so much entertainment. And when it comes down to it, these storage spaces are still just rooms full of “stuff”. To truly satiate a bona fide impulse for adventure, one must embark on a journey through the tunnels of Hillside.
The Hillside tunnels possess an aura of mystery and intrigue. On campus, information about these tunnels is not readily available, and exploratory accounts are often unreliable and vague. When he was asked where to find an entrance to the tunnels, a junior responded, “I’ve always wanted to explore them. I just have no idea where to go. I guess it’s just something I have to do.” This seems to be a sentiment shared by many; everyone is aware of the tunnels’ existence, but few can actually provide specifics. Even Security and Campus Life were unable to answer inquiries about the tunnels. An incredulous Hillside custodian seemed puzzled by the idea there could be navigable underground spaces. Finally though, Director of Physical Plant Patricia Crandlemire Murphy was able to explain that these are steam tunnels made to provide structural support. The College prohibits students from exploring the tunnels, and Murphy warns that, “temperatures can reach 212ºF, people could die if that happens.”
Exploration is, however, an undeniably tempting prospect; this is evidenced by a video that the Class of 2010’s Andy Bolduc and Alex Basset pieced together. One night during the Senior Week of their sophomore year, Basset and Bolduc decided that it was time to verify the tunnel-related rumors and accounts that they had heard from friends. Basset, having lived in Hillside for two years, figured, “Why not explore?” Ongoing repairs to the piping presented them with a perfect opportunity: a rug just inside the door of Leonard, near room 101, left an entrance uncovered. Using a screwdriver, Basset pried off the brown carpet and metal hatchway and climbed downward, armed with a video camera and flashlight. Crawling on their hands and knees through an approximately four-by-four foot tunnel laced with wiring and piping, Basset and Bolduc made it all the way from Williams to Taylor underground. “There is graffiti from the ’60s and ’70s, and old beer cans that are not even made anymore,” noted Basset. Finally, after an hour and a half, Basset and Bolduc emerged from the tunnels unscathed. They were completely satisfied with their adventure.
Bolduc and Basset are by no means the only students who have explored these tunnels. Michael Brophy ’12, is among the Colby students daring enough to explore their twists and turns. During his first year on the Hill, Brophy and his loyal sidekick Erik “Al” Baish ’12 set out to gain a first-hand perspective on stories they had heard. If the journey in and of itself weren’t mysterious enough, Brophy reminisces that “some guy I had never seen before suddenly appeared and asked if we wanted to get into the tunnels. Then he pulled out a screwdriver, let us in, and disappeared.” Two years later, Brophy has yet to identify this elusive figure. Despite being assaulted by asbestos, Brophy encountered some friends who were also in the tunnel and spent an industrious hour wandering about its innards. Eventually, he emerged to an animated group of applauding spectators who were eager to hear about his experience.
Across campus, a number of students proudly claim to have delved into this underground complex. It remains unclear whether or not such exploratory endeavors are, from an administrative standpoint, punishable. Nonetheless, adventurous students continue to explore underground. A first-year student admits, “I wasn’t scared until we turned out the lights and it became really dark.” Her companion added that, “a pen would be enough to get the hatch up, but I used a screwdriver.” The consensus: the tunnels are an enthralling area that it definitely worth exploring as long as you don’t mind getting dirty.
To all those desiring a spelunking adventure, entrances can be found just inside almost every door in the Hillside complex. To enter into the system, you must simply pull up the brown carpet, pry open the metal cover and climb down the ladder. The tunnels are about four feet wide, but they vary in height from about three feet to seven feet tall. While there is enough space to crawl around, pipes and wiring provides various obstacles to exploration. Additionally, empty beer cans are scattered around the complex, and the entire system is plagued by dust mites and asbestos. Those who are afraid of getting lost in the depths of the tunnels need not fear; while there are winding turns, they ultimately lead back to entrances; user-friendly arrows spraypainted on the wall direct explorers through the main route. The tunnels span the length of Hillside, meaning that an explorer could make it all the way from Taylor to Williams underground.
Be forewarned; there are dangerous gases and chemicals that can leak into the area. Additionally, dust poses health concerns of its own. While exploration is possible, it is assuredly not advisable. The steam tunnels are, after all, a restricted area that students should not access. Also, PPD has sent out work orders to seal off the entrances that are still open to prevent students from making further endeavors into the tunnels.. It looks as though what once were hushed stories of weekend tunnel escapades may turn into long forgotten adventures.