FSU’s Underworld: An in-depth look at the legendary tunnel system

Most know nothing at all, and some laugh and deny their existence, while others say the ghost of Horace Mann himself haunts the dark and humid hallways of the university’s underground passages. The ancient and forbidden tunnels have become a part of campus lore, and with so little documentation of them and their primary usage, campus myth becomes harder to separate from history.

Parts of the winding tunnel system are over 100 years old, and they were last open for regular student use over 40 years ago. While walking through the tunnels, clusters of old-fashioned school chairs with desks attached can be seen and are undisturbed and dust-coated relics of the past.

The reason they were sealed off all those years ago remains a secret that only the tunnel walls know for sure.

“I’ve heard that people have gone down there and been raped or murdered or something in the early 1900s,” said junior Colin MacEacheron. “I’ve heard the craziest things imaginable.”

It is vaguely documented in the book “Framingham State College,” by R. Marc Kantrowitz and Marianne Larson, that “they were eventually closed for safety reasons.”

Senior Tyler DeMoura joked, “I hear that there was a fire in the catacombs, and a man actually fused together with a giant rat, and now he roams the tunnels, half rat, half man.”

In her book, “Haunted Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts”, Renee Mallett wrote, College legend says that the wiring in the tunnels was faulty, causing a fire that killed one student, and that it was then that the college discontinued their use.”

Mallett said that these tunnels were a fairly common addition to college campuses in Massachusetts at one point, and were used to travel in between classes and stay dry and warm, even in the roughest New England weather.

“You’ll find plenty of students who say that the tunnels are haunted,” Mallett wrote, “and that the activity going on down there sometimes spills into Horace Mann Hall and Peirce Hall.”

Mallet’s book describes an incident where paranormal activities ‘spilled’ into Peirce Hall from the tunnels, and was allegedly reported by a past RA who was living in the dorm in the weeks before the students returned from summer break.

“Go to bed in Peirce Hall, and in the morning you’ll find the building’s ghost was busy all night long moving mirrors out of the rooms and piling them up, reflective side to the wall, in the hallways,” wrote Mallet.

This particular ghost “doesn’t care for vanity,” she added.

On the other hand, Bob Tatro, director of the campus power plant, believes that the Ghostbusters would be disappointed in the spooky passage.

“Maybe people thought I was the ghost,” said Tatro, his voice echoing down the empty underground corridors.

“I’ve heard some of the stories but I’ve spent the last 30 years around these tunnels, and I can promise you I’ve never see a ghost,” Tatro added.

All throughout the tunnels, the hum of machinery can be heard, sending strange echoes down the hallways. The air down there stays humid from heat emanating off of the steam piping that runs along the length of the new tunnels, while the old tunnels retain a heavy, mustier smell.

The first tunnel was constructed between May and Crocker Hall in 1901 for electrical wires and drainage pipes, according to the school’s website. By 1920, the tunnels became an underground maze of brick walls and archways that connected not only May and Crocker halls, but also Peirce, Horace Mann and Wells halls, which stood where Hemenway Hall currently does.

“We used them in bad weather to get to class,” said Marjorie McKay an alumna of the Class of 1954.

“As I recall, we used them over to the lunchroom. There was a lunchroom in May hall, and there was a gym in May Hall,” she said.

Useful as they were in their prime, they were still notoriously unnerving, and based on the description given by McKay, the old tunnels have not changed much in appearance over the last 60 years.

“We never even thought twice about it at the time,” said McKay, “and when you stop and think of it, it really was a very bad idea.”

She said she always traveled in groups through the tunnels. McKay described the conditions as “dreadful. … Single light bulbs hanging, that kind of thing.

“I don’t know the best words to describe it – creepy, eerie. It was one of those things that you did because you had to do it, and you didn’t think a lot about it. … There are most likely codes and regulations in today’s world that were never thought of at the time.”

For the ladies of the Class of 1954, the tunnels served a more practical and common use – sneaking back into the dorms after curfew.

McKay said that if anyone were even a few minutes late, they would be required to report to the dean. To avoid this, many of the ladies found themselves elusively sneaking around the tunnels to make it back to their dorm rooms undetected.

“There was a watchwoman, Ms. Brady, and a watchman, Mr. Perry, who would patrol the corridors of the dormitories, and the tunnels from dusk till dawn. God help you if you weren’t in your room after 9,” said McKay.

“You really would crack up if you knew some of the rules we abided by. We broke most of them, most of the time, because they were so dumb,” she said.

Nancy Grew, a good friend of McKay, and fellow alumna of the Class of 1954, said, “It was a little a dreary down there. You moved quickly because you wanted to get to where you were going without getting caught.

“You wouldn’t get caught down there. You would get caught when you came up. … It was just one of those things where, you know, you heard the stories of the tunnels, and you wanted to maybe make an attempt to do it once, just to say that you were part of that history.”

Since then, additional tunnels have been added and now play a major role in everyday campus life despite the discontinuation of student use decades ago.

The newest addition to the tunnel system was built in 1961, with the construction of the campus power plant. The new tunnels run along the brick walkway in the center of upper campus, and stretch from May Hall to the power plant behind Dwight. The tunnel connects to a staircase in Dwight, binding it to the four oldest buildings on campus.

The construction of the power plant prompted the extension of the tunnels. By creating another tunnel, and connecting it to the old tunnels, all of the steam and water piping for the entire campus stays quietly hidden underground, and remains very easily accessible by maintainers. Tatro said this is hugely beneficial because no piping has to be dug up if a problem were to arise, or an update needed to be made.

Strangely, the new tunnels are in worse shape than the old.

At the entrance of the tunnels in the basement of the power plant grows young stalagmites and stalactites, due to decades of leaks and lime buildup.

“It’s pretty deteriorated,” said Tatro at the entrance. “A lot of the ground water leaks down on this stuff. … They’re really not safe to let anybody just walk through.”

It’s a “watch your step” and a “we should all be wearing hard hats” kind of place, as Tatro constantly stressed.

Many of the musty rooms in the basements of the old buildings are now being used for storage, and the tunnels are only used by trained facilities professionals who regularly check various pressure gauges and thermometers, as well as for leaks in the steam pipes.

The tunnels now collect rock dust and ground water, but the tall tales of lost souls rearranging furniture and rat-humans roaming the passages live on in campus history.

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