Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween Story: The Vanderbilt Catacombs

On the surface, there's not much scary to see on the Vanderbilt campus as another Halloween rolls around. In fact, yesterday you could find a brillant display of fall colors whereever you looked, although that could be diminished a bit by some stormy (and maybe scary) weather due to blow through the area this afternoon and tonight.

It's well below the beautiful trees and the statue of the Commodore that you will find something rather strange and forboding at Vanderbilt, especially for Halloween. It's the 5 miles of steam and utility tunnels that burrow their way hundreds of feet (even up to 13 stories below the ground in some spots) connecting a number of buildings on campus. Lots of strange rumors and tall tales have grown up over the years about what appears to be Vanderbilt's catacombs. The tunnels have even been featured in some horror movies in recent years. Here's a video about it all produced a few months ago by VUCast......

Here's even more background from a recent article by The Hustler.....

Of course there is a Centennial Class connection to all of this. Our own Steve Womack had a set of keys to access the tunnels as a part of his duties as Station Manager of WRVU our senior year 1972-73. Why?

Well it dates back to the days when WVU (later WRVU) was a carrier current station broadcasting its signal down lines strung through the tunnels and connecting to small transmitters in each dorm where you could then pick up the station at 580 on your AM dial (and on your toaster or the small oven or hotplate in your dorm room too, I'm told).

The WRVU station manager had a set of keys to the tunnels for access in case of maintainence or repair needs. Of course by our senior year, WRVU had a educational FM license broadcasting at 91.1 FM (got it in December, 1971). So the keys were really not necessary. But at least for that year, Steve had them.

Any stories to tell, Step?

By the way, while we were way past childhood, did anyone go out "trick or treating" while we were at Vanderbilt? If so, where did you go? Down the hall in your dorm? Around the neighborhoods nearby the campus? And what about Halloween parties? Did anybody have one or go to one while we were in school? Any memories you'd like to share? Remember the legal drinking age went down to 18 back then so maybe you don't remember!

Photo credit for campus scenes above to Vanderbilt's John Russell.


Unknown said...

Talk about setting the ball on a tee and daring me to swing.

The craziest thing about those tunnels was that every building had a different key to access the catacombs. I had 99 unduplicated keys as station manager. The total number of keys I inherited was more, but several were duplicates or no longer fit any locks we could find...I culled all those out pretty early on. Never could find a hundredth, though I tried. Once in the catacombs you could access the basement of all campus buildings.

The catacombs also carried heat from plant ops, telephone and electrical lines, Wrvu's lines (always detectable as the cheapest grade and gauge wire, usually falling down every 100 feet or so) and the water lines.

As such they were hot, humid, and dirty. Like a hot cave without the rimstones and stalactites.
That tunnel between the North and South Towers was about 10 times as wide, but it gave you the idea.

Like it used to be in the library stacks where you'd turn the lights on and off as you needed them, it was the same in the tunnels. Looking into that darkness could be spooky. We always carried flashlights just in case.

Barney Kantor (our chief engineer) and I spent weekends exploring everything and reclaiming any WRVU wire or equipment we could after we went FM. I used to drag that Radio Flyer wagon we had behind me to carry the stuff back to Neely.

The tunnels ran off a grid system off two main truck lines. The biggest surprize to me was finding a series of lines under 21st Avenue that came up under the Social-Religious building on the Peabody campus.

Several labs off the basements of the science center, medical center, and engineering school housed some rather important and classified reasearch facilities, I know we weren't supposed to see, but we did.

In the days of panty raids they would have provided pretty good access and egress from the women's dorms, including Stapleton, but to my knowledge, nobody ever used them for that, as you would have turned up in plant ops and been exposed.

You had to have a good sense of the layout of the campus, otherwise you would wander off dead end corridors to who knows where. We'd sometimes run into folks from plant ops down there, after awhile they figured out who we were, but they weren't too fond of us being down there taking down wire and those homemade amps we had under every dorm.

Every one was homemade, some were incredibly overpowered like the one in Tolman and the ones in the Towers. Others had burned out tubes (yes, tubes), transistors, and broken wires. No wonder we hummed over the toasters in some dorms and couldn't be heard at all in others.

I used the tunnels personally to gain access to Kirkland Hall and into the Bell Tower, the top of the Social Religious building, where I accidently poked a hole through the ceiling with a misstep, and then covered the story as a reporter that Monday.
I trust the statue of limitations has expired.

Steve Womack

Pat said...

Great stuff, Step! Glad I dared you and put it up on a tee for you to swing from the heels!