What lurks beneath

David EideOpinions Columnist

It is a well-established tradition at Gustavus for seniors to be allowed to go down into the network of steam tunnels that stretch out underneath the campus during Senior Week.  Personally, I am looking forward to it.  Ever since I first heard about the Gustavus tunnels, I’ve been fascinated by them and the idea that there is a whole unseen world right under our feet.  I quickly came to realize that this world goes far beyond Gustavus, and that America is in fact full of hidden underground locales, some still in use, others abandoned.  I hope that this article can inspire a similar fascination with the complex subterranean world that exists just out of our sight.

Even in the immediate vicinity of Gustavus there are several underground spaces besides the steam tunnels.  During prohibition, several speakeasies operated out of St. Peter and it has long been rumored that many had secret tunnels for the storage of liquor or for patrons to hide in if the speakeasies were raided by federal authorities.  So far, there hasn’t been much concrete evidence of these tunnels, but there are other well-attested tunnel networks beneath St. Peter.  For example, there are several abandoned tunnels underneath Engressers Brewery, likely dating to the early days of the business when they were used for beer storage.  As of now they sit abandoned, with a ladder being needed to access them.  There are also several unused tunnels beneath the St. Peter Security Hospital that were originally used for sewage but now serve little purpose, with a few having been partially filled in but several still existing in their original state.  If there are this many tunnel systems under a small town like St. Peter, what do big cities look like?

Washington D.C. features a sprawling network of tunnels that connect many of the important buildings–such as the Capitol and congressional office buildings–to one another, enabling lawmakers to quickly move from one to the other.  It is likely that these tunnels extend far further than is publicly known and contain exit points in various other locations in case an evacuation is necessary.  The US is also studded with nuclear bunkers dating back to the Cold War when fears of nuclear war ran higher than they do today.  Some of these bunkers have been renovated into luxury housing while many smaller ones continue to sit unused, slowly eroding away.  Many underground spaces have important economic purposes as well, with many abandoned mines being repurposed into storage spaces for various goods due to the relative stability of their conditions.  Of particular note is New York City, whose subway system has many offshoots and abandoned areas, some of which can reach deep into the history of the city.

It is easy to picture these tunnel systems as completely empty but that is unfortunately not the case.  Oftentimes, the unhoused populations of America’s cities take refuge within these tunnel networks to stay warm during the colder months of the year.  The plight of these people is likely what inspired Jordan Peele’s 2018 horror film Us, which also features a class of people living underneath the cities of America.  

I can understand why Peele found the underground networks of America to be a source for horror and social commentary.  There is something deeply unsettling about the idea of an entire world that exists just beneath ours.  I have specifically avoided giving examples from other countries as I wanted to focus mainly on America, but I simply have to mention the catacombs underneath many European cities.  Most of these cities are much older than their American counterparts and as such have an even more developed system of tunnels. Many (but not all) catacombs served as burial places for the dead when surface graveyards began to run out of space.  This is the case for the Paris Catacombs, whose walls studded with skulls and bones seem like they came right out of a nightmare, when in fact they were dumped there when Paris cleared out its graveyards in the 18th century.  

I’ve often thought there is something alluring about the depths.  We are both repulsed by and attracted to the caverns that span for miles beneath the earth’s surface, so it’s unsurprising that we’ve recreated them in our built spaces.  The tunnels and catacombs of the world excite our curiosity. They make us ask, “how far down does this go?”  I don’t think there’s anyone alive who knows the answer, and yet we keep wondering about what exactly lurks beneath our feet.  So the next time you’re looking up at a skyscraper, maybe also consider what might be underneath the skyscraper.