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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Spelunking the Columbia tunnels

The NY Times's Ben Gibberd wrote last week about urban explorers, who spelunk in sewers, sub-basements, abandoned buildings and aqueducts.

Alice and I went to Columbia, where there is an enormous and mysterious network of underground tunnels and chambers filled with machinery of unknown purpose and provenance. A Wired article years ago discussed the tunnels and the artifacts they contain.

Personal accounts, rumors and maps (see right) have been collected by anonymous, collaborative adventurers over the years; I host a copy of this repository. (There's also a general list of information on tunnels at various campuses, at least until Tripod finally goes out of business.) Its notes on history, are fascinating particularly the use of tunnels by protesters and police in 1968. The advice is by turns practical and maddening, for example this list of tips:

A few hints for amateur explorers of the Morningside tunnels, though.
1) Find a real map (try in Low Library); don't trust all
the bullshit everyone's saying about tunnels that don't exist.
2) Check that none of the doors you open lock behind you.
3) Most of the alarms in the north campus buildings are
silent on the floor where they are tripped. Don't get caught.
4) If you find yourself in an asbestos shaft between certain of the
north campus buildings and you find some graffiti that says 'for God's
sake don't look around this corner,' don't look around the corner.

I explored the tunnels some in my day, and enjoyed taking the shortcut between Hamilton and Kent Halls when it wasn't blocked off. I also once snuck into a corridor deep in Mudd Hall where, through a window, I could see a seemingly unused cylindrical piece of machinery, over a story tall, with an aging log book and dusty coffee cup sitting on top.

Unluckily, in my exploring I never came across Miru Kim (right), who the article explains is a former student who photographs herself naked in such strikingly inorganic surroundings as Columbia's Manhattan Project chambers.

From the article, on the atomic adventures of Steve Duncan, also formerly of Columbia:

Mr. Duncan's greatest coup came when he wiggled through a vent in the ceiling and emerged from a door on the other side of a room. A quick step through the door and across the corridor outside led to a densely cluttered room, piled high with cases of ancient electrical machinery.

This, Mr. Duncan announced, was the original Pupin Laboratory, where the university's physics department built a particle accelerator and split the atom in 1939, in an early stage of what would be known as the Manhattan Project. Mr. Duncan said he believed that in 1987 he became the first urban explorer to discover it, although others followed suit, as attested by the graffiti around the room.

The particle accelerator -- a circular green mass in the center of the room that resembles nothing more alarming than an enormous food processor -- was too heavy and too dangerous to safely remove after the project moved to Chicago, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he said, so the university decided to keep it here, ''in their mildly radioactive junk storage room.''

The discovery left him jubilant.

''It's just a great example of how you peel back one layer and you get to old coal hoppers,'' he said. ''You peel back another layer and you find the foundations of an asylum when this area was all grass and farmlands. You peel back another layer, and here's the building where the atom was split.''