When you push open that heavy metal door, you enter a subterranean labyrinth. Follow the metallic rainbow of tags, slogans, and insults that adorn the walls ever deeper into the maze. Inhale the distinct bouquet of spray-paint and stale air. Take the time to relish your descent into the bowels of Wesleyan University.
Though the graffiti of past generations has been obliterated by numerous paintjobs, the tunnels remain an eternal source of fascination and even pride for the student body.
“Students always went down into the tunnels,” said Reference Librarian Erhard Konerding, who has been working at the University for over 30 years.
Stories about the tunnels include first-hand accounts of personal expeditions. Others have been passed on by word of mouth over years, many with some kernel of truth to them and some springing from pure speculation.
One rumor maintains that a couple of undergraduates moved into the tunnels under the Butts a few years ago to avoid paying the housing fees. Another posits that there was a shooting range down there at some point. Rumors regarding the contents of the countless underground storage rooms abound.
At least one theory about these rooms is true. The top floors of Judd Hall held a Wesleyan Museum from 1871 until 1957, displaying fossils, stuffed birds, fish, mammals, and a mummy. When the museum was closed, parts of the collection were given away, while others were put into storage under the Foss Hill dorms. Apparently, tunnels-aficionados found them—stuffed mammals, including a giant buffalo, began materializing around campus.
“I remember seeing a kangaroo out on Foss Hill, and someone had stuck a broom in its paws,” said Konerding. “I think all that stuff has gotten more secure, though. I think those creatures still exist, but I don’t think they’re down in any of those tunnels anymore.”
Those well—versed in Wesleyan lore will also have heard at least one of two legends relating to Russell House. Samuel Russell (1789-1862) commissioned the building’s construction in the 1820s and 30s. A Middletown native, he was the founder of Russell & Company, a rampantly successful American merchant business. According to University brochures, he imported silk, tea, and “other goods” from China.
Supposedly, tunnels underneath the former residence were used to transport opium to the Connecticut River. However, Russell actually had the house constructed while he was in Asia and didn’t move in until he retired from the company in 1836. The business carried on without him and, presumably, without the services that a passageway under his house might have rendered.
The second myth regarding the mansion pinpoints the tunnel as part of the Underground Railroad. It has been impossible, however, to verify the existence of such a tunnel.
As much as people love to romanticize the tunnels, many can’t help feeling somewhat uneasy at the thought of them. In fact, mystery writer Richard Forrest named them one of the top places in Connecticut to commit a murder. University alumna Michelle Gagnon recently published her mystery novel, “The Tunnels,” about a serial killer who roams the catacombs of an esteemed New England college.
Jason Bitterman ’10 has a spine-tingling story to tell of his adventure into the depths of Butt B’s underground last year. He and a friend stumbled across an unlocked door that led to a room piled high with burlap sacks of unknown contents. They used a piece of chalk to keep the door open, worried about getting trapped inside. As they approached the mound of sacks, they were frightened by an eerie noise.
“We took the chalk with us to erase evidence of our presence, and then we ran as fast as our legs would take us,” Bitterman said.
Fearless student explorers have developed methods for breaking almost any lock and entering almost any passage, including those filled with asbestos. One student even pocketed a ring of keys that a Public Safety officer had left in a lock in the tunnels.
“It’s off-limits, it’s interesting,” said a source who wished to remain anonymous. “There’s something about seeing what the school doesn’t want you to see. They want you to see Fauver, Usdan and the admissions office. It’s all too pretty. There’s just something about a space that has been shaped by students.”