History of the tunnels

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This article documents the history of the tunnels.


The oldest tunnels are from the mental asylum that existed before the Morningside Heights campus was built. These tunnels are small and extremely hot, and they connect to Buell/Maison Francaise, the one building remaining from the asylum. The steam tunnel system between Hamilton Hall, Kent Hall, Philosophy Hall, and Fayerweather Hall connects to these old tunnels.

1968 riots

The 1968 riots shut down the school for several days as student protestors forcibly occupied some of the campus buildings. The students made use of the tunnels to move from building to building and WKCR, the student radio station, tapped phone lines in the tunnels to keep tabs on the university and police response. Radical groups such as the SDS and some Harlem civil rights protestors also joined the protest making it very dangerous. The tunnels, which allowed the students to successfully occupy the buildings, were also their undoing, as university staff and eventually the police used them to capture and remove the protestors.

The protestors' use of the tunnels made Columbia realize they were a liability, prompting several tunnels to be walled off or locked. Tunnels locked/blocked in response to the 1968 riots include, but may not be limited to:

It is difficult to determine if a certain tunnel that was blocked was in response to the riots or Ken Hechtman's activities.

Library sources

Columbiana library

To access sensationalist historic articles about the tunnels, ask the reference librarian to allow you to look at the "Columbia Tunnels" folder. The folder may also simply be labeled "tunnels". Those articles cannot be posted on this wiki for copyright reasons. Grounds maps are also available in the library which can give you all sorts of useful information!

Avery Library

Check out the old Manhattan land guides. They show the Bloomingdale Asylum in good detail. They reveal all sorts of interesting facts such as that there was a horse stable near present-day Furnald Hall. Also, Furnald was spelled Fernald. There is only one easily available book in reference that is helpful for floor plans. Look up the call number on CLIO (it should be something like AA 66XX.XXX). There are blueprints, but you have to make an appointment because they are in the archives.

History embedded in the tunnels

Students have been illicitly exploring the tunnels ever since the system was closed off following its use by student rioters in 1968. Some tags on the tunnel walls have dates from the 1970s and 1980s. The Signature Room, reachable from the Old Powerhouse tunnel system, contains literally hundreds of signatures and quotes from tunnelers past. Although the majority of dates are in the 1990s and 2000s, one name is followed by "CC '69".

Historical artifacts abound in the older tunnels. Abandoned coal cars sit under the Business School, antiquated laboratory equipment has been dumped under nearly all of the science buildings, and there is even an aged toilet and shower to be found off the Old Powerhouse. Yearbooks dating as far back as the 1930s and course catalogs from the 1910s have also been found. Most interesting are the photos of campus from back when traffic ran on 116th Street and Barnard College didn't yet exist.