Insane Asylums, Student Radicals, and Uranium Theft: A Brief History of the Columbia Unviersity Tunnel System

A tunnel below the CU campus. Pic courtesy of Undercity.

As part of regimen to simultaneously keep myself solvent and to break out of my unhealthy owlish sleeping habits, I started work this week at the circulation desk of the Columbia University’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library. Today, my supervisor took me for the grand tour of the place. It really is lovely. Check out the stained glass window of Lady Justice. (Yeah, I mistook her the Virgin Mary, too. Turns out this used to be the law library.)

The highlight, though, was a brief descent into the storied CU tunnel system. I didn’t get much of a chance to check things out–during my tour, the tunnel was basically used a shortcut to get from one part of the stacks to another–but it was pretty cool to step into a network that simultaneously plays such a major role in the Columbia mythos and stays largely invisible to all but the most intrepid student adventurers (and, of course, to facilities staff).

A map of the tunnels, courtesy of Wikipedia and the efforts of Mike Schiraldi. Whoever you are, Mike, we salute you!

The lineage of the tunnels is actually pretty spooky, so spooky, in fact, that it took me some substantial Internet research to dispel any lingering suspicions that the story wasn’t invented to scare incoming freshmen. When Columbia moved to its current digs in Morningside Heights around the turn of the 20th century, it installed tunnels underneath the campus to transport the coal that kept the classrooms and dormitories toasty in the wintertime. Not all of these tunnels were built from scratch, however. Among the oldest of these passageways is one below Buell Hall, and it’s a holdover from the time when the Morningside Campus was the property of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum. Despite its fashionable name, the undercover journalism of New York Tribune reporter Julius Chambers confirmed that in the late 1800s, Bloomingdale was essentially the hell on earth that you’d expect out of a Dickens-era asylum. God only knows what kind of screams echoed through those tunnels way back when.

To jump forward about a century, let’s explore the tale of Ken Hechtman, arguably the most famous tunnel spelunker in school history and leader of Allied Destructive Hackers of Columbia. ADHOC, as it was called, was essentially a Project Mayhem-lite that wreaked minor havoc on campus during the mid-1980s. Most of their hijinks were the kind of juvenile pranks you’d expect from a gang of Ivy League freshmen. They cut off the electricity to buildings and climbed to the top Low Library, for example. Hechtman, however, kicked things up to a new level when he and friend Jeff Bankoff ambled out of a tunnel and into an unlocked storage area beneath the Pupin Hall physics building. Fulfilling his reputation for being “allergic to authority,” Hechtman gathered a stash of chemicals that included chlorophorm, mercury, pure caffeine, nitric acid, and–this is not a joke–depleted uranium-238. Now this isn’t uranium-235, meaning Hechtman couldn’t have set off a nuclear reaction with his new toy, but it was still enough to provoke the attention of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and get Ken effectively expelled from Columbia. It should be known, though, that his career of troublemaking continued well after his stint in Morningside. In the years since, Hechtman has lived in anarchist squats on the Lower East Side, broken into Area 51, and been captured (and released) by the Taliban while working as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan.

Uranium isn’t the only scientific treasure that’s been housed in bowels of Pupin Hall (tee-hee). Before moving to Chicago in 1942, the Manhattan Project called the basement of Pupin its homebase, explaining why the effort to create an atomic weapon was named after our fair isle along the Hudson. And up until 2003, apparently no one thought to clean this basement out. The cyclotron–the grandfather of the particle accelerator–remained in place and accessible by tunnel until under a decade ago, and an unsourced portion of the tunnels’ Wikipedia page paints a pretty haunting scene: “Notes and daily logs scattered dusty tables. Half-completed experiments sat in stasis, only visible to the few explorers who got in.”

The cyclotron, apparently tagged by Springfield’s infamous El Barto. Pic from Undercity.

Perhaps the most significant patch of tunnel lore took root during the student uprising of 1968. In that headiest of years, Columbia students found themselves outraged both by the revelation of the school’s extensive institutional affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis and by a plan to construct “Gym Crow,” a university gymnasium that would use public space in Morningside Park while allow only limited access to the residents of Harlem. Students responded by occupying CU buildings, including Hamilton Hall, the School of Architecture, and the president’s office in Low Library. When the NYPD was brought in to seal off these buildings and prevent reinforcements and supplies from trickling inside, student protesters took to the tunnels to circumvent the police presence and transmit information, support, and the occasional bologna sandwich. WKCR, the student radio station, monitored the administration and police response by tapping the the phone lines in the tunnels. But as it lived by the tunnels, so did the student strike die by them. The NYPD eventually wised up and used the passageways to storm the occupied buildings. In the aftermath of ’68, the university somewhat successfully set out to seal the tunnels and stymie the ambitions of future generations of student radicals.

This man has no idea that Mark Rudd is crawling six inches beneath his boots. Pic from the New York Times.

My minute or so in the tunnels didn’t have even a hint of the drama that the infiltrations of ADHOC or the ’60s insurgents had in abundance. Still, it was a little thrill to finally see them in person. Sadly, I don’t expect the current crop of Columbia students to renew the subversive history of the cave labyrinth beneath their feet. Despite its proud history of activism, CU has been sadly underrepresented during the latest significant American insurgency against injustice, Occupy Wall Street. For reasons geographic (we’re 100-some blocks north of Zuccotti), economic (relatively fewer students are paying their own way compared to, say, CUNY), and cultural (I’m told that the finance industry remains the major drain on Columbia talent, even post-2008), this school isn’t the hotbed of change that it once was. But still the tunnels remain, weaving below campus like a necropolis of dreams past, waiting (hoping?) to be resurrected.

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