A chill in the air, the changing colors of leaves and the ubiquitous bag of hand-picked apples: it is obvious to any Yale student that fall has officially arrived. Yale’s campus in part lends itself to the spooky mood of the Halloween season. The University’s Gothic architecture, rollicking bells and the adjacent cemetery proclaiming the words, “The Dead Shall Be Raised” appear to be plucked from the script of a campy classic. Along with this external aesthetic, the omnipresence of secret societies, unknown passageways and centuries-old traditions show a culture both devoted to, and excited by, preserving the intrigue and mystery of Yale’s over three-hundred year history.
Beneath the surface on which these buildings sit, a subterranean campus secret has captured the attention of intrepid Yale students for generations: a labyrinth of tunnels connecting the buildings occupies the blocks between York, Elm, Grove and College Streets on Yale’s central campus. The network includes all the residential college basements as well as the steam tunnels. Unlike the above-ground tombs of Skull and Bones and the well-traversed residential college roofs, these tunnels represent a relatively unexplored campus secret: while ten out of ten Yale students who were surveyed expressed interest in investigating the tunnels, none had actually explored them during their time at Yale. The appeal, however, remains salient.
“Part of Yale’s appeal is its age and history, and seeing something old and unknown like these tunnels I guess is sort of immersing yourself more in it,” Theodore Pedas ’20 explained when interviewed.
Despite the tunnels’ current mystique, their origins reveal a more practical purpose. The tunnels can be dated to the construction of the eight original colleges, Sterling Memorial Library and Payne Whitney Gym in the early 1930s. Designed to transport steam and electricity between the myriad buildings, they are largely filled with large steam pipes, high-pressure water pipes and data cables. According to Director of Utilities and Engineering Anthony Kosior, the steam tunnels provide a way for the University to streamline piping, services and equipment to campus buildings.
Despite rules barring students from entering the tunnels, a small group of first years has begun exploring the ins and outs of the tunnel network. One student, who prefers to remain anonymous, first stumbled upon the tunnels with a group of fellow students last month.
“We were searching on our phones for ‘what secrets are there at Yale?’” the student said. “We read an old article from the YDN about the steam tunnels and figured, ‘let’s find them.’”
Once they found and entered the steam tunnels, however, the students found the exposed pipes and cement walls relatively underwhelming. “They’re not very spooky actually. It’s just a lot of pipes and a door that maybe leads to a residential college basement.”
Still, the student explained that they returned on another occasion with two friends and hopes to recruit others to share the unique experience. One of the two friends, who tagged along on the second visit, expressed a sense of awe at exploring a space so separate from the external buildings on campus.
“If you go down there, it feels a little bit like another world,” the friend explained. “Just like the environment of the place. It’s a little bit claustrophobic, with pipes everywhere, and it’s warmer which is really different because when I went it was really cold outside, but once you go down it’s really warm.”
These students carry on a long tradition of students and administrators exploring and exploiting Yale’s network underground spaces at Yale throughout their eighty-year history. During the Cold War era, the tunnels and other Yale underground spaces, such as residential college basements, were designated as “fallout shelters.” Believed capable of withstanding the high-level radiation of a nuclear attack, the tunnels were stocked with supplies and incorporated into the University’s emergency plan.
Deputy Provost for Academic Resources J. Lloyd Suttle recalls that when he came to Yale in 1965, many Yale basements and subbasements were designated as fallout shelters. “I presume this was true of the steam tunnels as well … I recall rooms in the basement with yellow signs and stocked with large green tin cans labeled as food and water,” he added.
Beyond providing potential refuge for nuclear attacks, the underground passageways also served the far more mundane purpose of walking shortcuts for students during the 1960s and 1970s. Dave Richards ’67 LAW ’72, the author of “Skull and Key: The Hidden Histories of Yale’s Secret Societies,” recalls using the underground passageways to shorten his late-night food commute from Davenport to the Pierson buttery in his undergraduate years.
Despite the steam tunnels’ appeal, current Yale undergraduate regulations render exploration a disciplinary offense, citing safety and security concerns. Kosior emphasizes that the tunnels should only be used by authorized personnel. When asked about his experiences with the tunnel as an administrator, Suttle recalled multiple incidents involving unauthorized student entrance into the tunnels. During his tenure on the Yale College Executive Committee in the mid-1980s, Suttle remembered at least two groups of students who had to appear before the Committee for breaking into the steam tunnels.
After these incidents, the University installed security devices to monitor and block access to the tunnels, he added.
Many students cite the fear of disciplinary action from the Yale administration as a chief deterrent to exploring off-limits spaces like the tunnels. In a survey of ten Yale students, nine said that the risk of punishment would completely dissuade them from attempting to access the tunnels in spite of their secretive appeal. Some also identified fears of the hot steam circulating the tunnels or getting lost in the maze-like hallways of the underground network.
Considering these outstanding concerns, why do students continue to express interest in exploring these secret passageways?
Suttle suggested that students may be drawn to the ominous mystique and prohibitive nature of the tunnels. While the threat of disciplinary action may act as deterrence, he contended that this feeling of rule-breaking may also contribute to the appeal.
Richards also emphasized Yale’s unique culture of campus secrets as it pertained to the cultivation of secret societies at Yale. In his book, Richards remarks that the only tunnel he encountered was the notion of a metaphorical tunnel between the basements of Skulls and Bones and Dwight Hall, imagined by students based on the frequent tapping of Dwight Hall leaders into the prestigious secret society. Drawing a parallel between the windowless nature of underground tunnels and the above-ground tombs of secret societies, Richards recalls a sense of being sequestered from the outside world. Beyond the gloomy aesthetic, however, Richards acknowledged the fun and lighthearted nature of Yale’s secret spaces and organizations.
It seems, perhaps, that the mythology of Yale’s history continues to enrich the underbelly of campus life. Looking ahead, the looming question remains as to how long these institutions will remain secret and to what extent the University should assume responsibility for regulation of these spaces.
“It’s that middle ground between people knowing about it but not everyone knowing about it,” remarked a first year who had gathered courage and traversed the tunnels.
Considering how these spaces’ appeal is largely contingent on exclusivity and mystery, one wonders how open of a secret they can become before they lose the very mystery and intrigue that defines them.
Ryan Howzell | firstname.lastname@example.org .