Columbia's Underground Labyrinth
Perhaps the reason the tunnels continue to receive a small but steady stream of visitors is that getting inside them is so astonishingly easy. Using the ID cards that Oona had forged, all six of the Irregulars breezed past the security desk at Butler Library, and less than five minutes later we were standing in front of an unmarked door in the building’s basement. There were no guards or cameras—and just an ordinary lock on the door. I imagine some would-be explorers might have found the lock a bit daunting, but Oona’s skilled fingers popped it like the latch on a cheap diary. She threw open the door, revealing a stern warning—something about dangerous conditions and trespassing fines—posted on the wall of tunnel. Kiki Strike took a picture of the warning for her own amusement, and we stepped inside the dimly lit labyrinth.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of exploring Columbia’s underground, I’m happy to describe what we saw there, though I can’t say it was charming sight. The tunnel beneath Butler Library is shaped like the inside of an aluminum can and stretches from east to west under the campus. The Irregulars set off to the east and eventually reached a door that opened onto a passage with concrete walls that were lined with a rainbow of brightly colored pipes. Later, we found sections of tunnel in poor repair—their brick walls were crumbling and mud puddles sprinkled with dead squirrels created a foul obstacle course. Wherever we went, evidence of previous explorers was impossible to overlook—graffiti covered the walls, soda bottles with cryptic notes inside littered the ground, and uninspired messages written in magic marker decorated the pipes.
The fact is, next to the Shadow City, the Columbia tunnels don’t offer much to write home about. Most are dirty, hot, and unpleasantly narrow. We did make a few interesting discoveries, however: a jumble of rotting trampolines, a dozen old coal carts left forgotten on their tracks, and evidence that one of the university’s main buildings could collapse at any time. When we passed under Pupin Hall, the university’s main physics building, DeeDee insisted we search for the cyclotron that was rumored to be on the first floor. Legend had it that the sixty-year-old machine had been used during the Manhattan Project—the development of the first nuclear bomb. DeeDee tried to make the search more interesting by warning us all that machine—along with the entire building—could be radioactive, but when we found the cyclotron, it looked like nothing more than a harmless hulk of rusting metal. (Also covered in graffiti, I might add.)
As we left the physics building and continued on the loop that led back toward Butler Library, DeeDee entertained us with the story of Ken Hechtman who had been a student at in the 1980’s. Founder of an anarchist group called ADHOC, Hechtman had used the tunnels to steal radioactive material from the physics department and dangerous chemicals from a nearby chemistry building so he could experiment with them in his dorm room. No one seemed to know the nature of Hechtman’s experiments. As DeeDee recounted the tale, I could sense that she admired the anarchist’s dedication to his science.
We were almost back under Butler Library when I realized we’d missed one of the tunnels. It was clearly marked on Professor Morlock’s map—a passage that began under the university’s bookstore and led to the west, beyond the campus’s borders. Yet somehow we had walked right past it.
The Irregulars returned to search for the tunnel, and for more than twenty minutes we looked in vain. Since the Irregulars have all had a fair amount of experience locating hidden passages, I began to wonder if the professor had made a mistake. After all, the tunnel wasn’t noted on any of the other maps we had come across. Even Kiki was ready to give up when Betty noticed a pipe on one wall that appeared to be cracked. She bent over for a look and felt a cool draft blowing against her cheek. She gave the pipe a soft push, and the crack widened. Another push, and part of the wall seemed to give way. It was a secret door, and behind it was the entrance to the tunnel we’d been looking for.
Long, dark, and only a few feet wide, the brick-lined tunnel stopped abruptly at another door. Kiki and I stepped past two empty cheesecake boxes and turned the knob. The fluorescent lights of a laundry room spilled into the darkness. We sent the other girls back to Butler Library, and exited the tunnel. When the door we’d come through closed behind us, it seemed to disappear into the wall. After a quick survey of the basement, Kiki and I took an elevator to the building’s first floor. When we realized we were inside an ordinary apartment building that offered little to see, we left through the front door.
Outside in the sunshine, I experienced my first real shock of the day. I was standing across the street from my dorm.