When I first came to Albion, I heard so many rumors about there being tunnels under the college. Some people told me they did not even exist, while others claimed they were used as bomb shelters and that students used them in the past to go from class to class – both of which are completely untrue (although avoiding the snowy trek to classes sounds like a dream come true). In order to prove the tunnels exist and to clear up the rumors, I recently went underground and into the very real and extensive tunnel system with Director of Facilities Don Masternak.
It turns out the college’s nearly half-mile of underground tunnels are, as Masternak says, “pretty utilitarian; just a functional raceway for utilities and power that go through campus.”
For the most part, the tunnels run beneath sidewalks some 10 to 15 feet below ground level. Grates you might not notice around campus allow fresh air to circulate through the tunnels and some of the heat produced by the hot pipes to escape. The released steam seeping upwards helps clear certain sections of sidewalk or grass of snow and ice. Masternak told me that before the steps in front of Kresge Gym were renovated, the grass near there would often die because there was a thinner layer of dirt between the tunnels and the surface, so more steam reached the grasses’ roots.
The tunnels’ exits lead into the basements or mechanical rooms of various buildings, including Olin, Kresge, the Kellogg Center, Robinson, Vulgamore, Goodrich Chapel and Wesley.
In the past, the tunnels connected all the way to Seaton Hall, but due to construction problems when redoing Hannah Street, it was decided to fill in the portion that went under the road. Now the tunnel system ends between Vulgamore and Robinson Hall, then begins again close to the front steps of Seaton.
Inside the tunnels, there are a lot of pipes of various sizes that run along the floor and hang low from the ceiling. Some bend in odd ways. There were certain sections where I had to step over obstacles, stay stooped down, crawl under piping or even go across a makeshift wooden bridge that allowed workers to enter a different tunnel without having to climb on the pipes to get to that branch. Along the way, marks on the floor indicated how many feet I had gone in the tunnel from the boiler house. Seeing as there are almost half a mile worth of tunnels, this can be very helpful!
“Sometimes [facilities workers] can tell when we’re having issues with things, approximately where it is and then locate it,” said Masternak.
This allows facilities workers to locate the problem easier and fix it, as opposed to measuring out the distance every time they need to fix part of the pipes.
The tunnels have existed for quite a while. The blueprints I got to see showed the tunnels from before Dickie Hall was changed from being the chapel to the KC, thanks to the new addition; it was before Mudd existed as part of the library and back when Olin used to be the science center (or McMillan Chemical Laboratory, as it was called). It is crazy to think these tunnels have been around through so much Albion history, yet most students know very little about them.
By the end of the tour, I stepped out disoriented from the tunnels into Robinson Hall and walked back to Facilities along the surface. It was odd to keep in mind that only a moment before I had been under the same sidewalk I was now walking on.
Photo by Katie Boni
Good article Katie, and oh, yes, the mystery surrounding those tunnels goes way, way back. Back in the ’40s I was a very young son of one of Albion’s professors and basketball coaches. As a result I was often over in Kresge gymnasium for basketball games and practices. Full of energy back then I was not satisfied with sitting quietly in the stands and watching team practices. As a result I would explore everywhere around in Kresge Gym and became familiar with all of its nooks and crannies.One time I went into the tunnel/passageway connecting Kresge Gym with the heating plant and discovered the entrance to the tunnel that ran to the other buildings. I had heard about them from my father and I decided to “take a look”. I started walking down the tunnel, which was very dark, but I noticed there were lights that one could turn on, one at a time, by pulling a string or chain hanging down from the fixture. I recall some of them were pretty short, though, and I had to jump a little to pull them. Occasionally, as I progressed, I would run into a bulb that didn’t work, so, I would have to go to the next one to turn on the light. The darkness out in front of me looked increasingly scary and after having traversed under the lawn about up to the equivalent of Stockwell Library I decided “I think I better turn around!” And I must say the return trip was much quicker! So, yes, the tunnels are definitely real and, I must report, not a comfortable place to go into when you are alone and quite young!