Tunnel underneath Carleton College

The Carleton Tunnels: A (Fictional) History

By Peter Gwinn ’93 (with apologies to Eric Hillemann)
For years, one of Carleton’s treasured and idiosyncratic features was a series of underground passages that allowed students to travel to class without exposure to the harsh winters and/or beautiful springs of Minnesota. Over time, the tunnels became far more than a mere shortcut. They became a canvas on which the artistic creativity and cleverness and vulgarity of Carleton students blossomed. They became a time capsule of the thoughts, triumphs, and inside jokes of generations of Carls. They became, in all likelihood—let’s face it—a place to inhale some asbestos.

In honor of Carleton’s descisemiquentenniary, let’s look at the noble history of a unique aspect of life at Carleton.

c. 8500 BCE: Retreating glaciers during the Mankato substage of the Wisconsin glacial episode create a system of underground passages beneath what is now known as Carleton College while simultaneously leaving a large “bald spot” on the surface.

c. 1350 CE: A Viking expedition led by the renowned explorer Bjorn the Disoriented travels down the Cannon River, creating a settlement when its longships cannot traverse that little waterfall. These Vikings soon discover the network of underground tunnels, adopting them for treasure caching, crop storage, and catacombs, as well as a soon-to-be famous underground mead hall known locally as “the Cave.”

1866: Carleton College is founded.

1881: The first Carleton president, James Woodward Strong, falls through a hole in the ground, landing atop a large hoard of Viking treasure, which becomes the basis for the college’s endowment.

1901: Students begin using the tunnels to avoid inclement weather when they walk from Davis Hall to the far eastern edge of campus: Scoville Hall.

1904: New Carleton president William Sallmon, responding to faculty outcry regarding student cleanliness, decides that the tunnels should be paved somehow instead of letting students clamber through dirt passages like earthworms.

1905: The tunnels first appear in a Carleton recruiting pamphlet, advertised as “Our College’s Own Subterranean Becobblestoned Thoroughfare.”

1917: Students vote to close the tunnels during the Great War, because, according to Arthur Swanson ’19, “we had to do something.”

1922: The original Viking tunnels on the west side are closed and filled with earth after federal agents discover Jack Swenson ’23’s massive distillery and bootlegging operation. The newer, wider, and cleaner east side tunnels remain open, as the chauvinistic agents never even think to look for Patty Goranson ’24’s massive distillery and bootlegging operation.

1938: The photo above shows the ski racks kept along the tunnel walls. Skis were kept in all tunnels so that, should the tunnels collapse under the weight of the snow above, students would have a means of emergency exit.

1946: The tunnels are closed to students after multiple reports of a Tunnel Bear wandering the hallways.

1948: The tunnels are reopened after the Tunnel Bear is discovered to be a sleepwalking President Larry Gould dressed in a fur coat from his Antarctica expedition.

1952: The tunnel network is expanded by a male student trying to dig his way into Gridley from the Music Hall.

1956: A contractor’s spray-painted arrow indicating the direction of flow through a steam pipe is mistaken by students as graffiti. Believing that vandalism is now condoned, students begin adding their own arrows and, later, words to the tunnel walls. The oldest discovered messages include “Peggy G. can’t hula hoop” (November 1956) and “Ceci n’est pas un tunnel” (April 1956).

1959: The first known tunnel graffiti consisting of an image, not just words.

1962: The first known tunnel graffiti consisting of an image that wasn’t a drawing of male genitalia.

1966: Cast member of The Monkees Peter Tork ’64 composes a tribute to his campus experience titled “Warm Tunnel to Musser.” The song is heavily rewritten by the show’s producers and eventually recorded as “Last Train to Clarksville.”

1967: Carleton sociology major Banksy ’68 raises the bar for tunnel graffiti. His first artwork is a scathing indictment of the practice of making freshmen wear beanies; the second, a faithful reproduction of the cover of Led Zeppelin III.

1970: The tunnels are a vital part of campus life. Decorating them becomes a tradition of self-expression among the student body.

1981: In 1981 a student paints this picture of a train tunnel on the wall in order to escape a cartoon coyote that was pursuing him.

1983: This Twister board, painted on the tunnel floor in 1983 by Constance Hinman ’85, enjoys a brief moment of immense popularity. Unfortunately, the spinner painted on the wall only points to Right Hand Blue, so games played here quickly get boring, and the board falls into disuse.

1986: A squirrel chews through a wire in the tunnels and is electrocuted, briefly tripling the range of KRLX-AM.

1988: Citing safety concerns raised by its insurance company, Carleton closes the tunnels to students.

1989: I start at Carleton. One year after they shut the tunnels. Seriously. And everyone’s like, “Oh, the tunnels are so great,” but I guess I’ll never know. And it’s really cold this winter and there’s a huge snowstorm. Just saying.

1990: Did I mention that the tunnels are still featured in Carleton’s recruiting brochure? They sold me on tunnels, and now there are no tunnels. Just saying.

1992: Seriously, “safety concerns”? What, we’re in danger of being too comfortable? Meanwhile, I’m crawling around the catwalks of Arena Theater 30 feet up without a safety line every single day. And we’re fine up there, too. Just. Saying.

1995: Lincoln Child ’79 and Douglas Preston publish The Relic, about a mythical monster running loose in tunnels beneath the Museum of Natural History, inspired by the legend of the Tunnel Bear.

2003: I spend the “Tunnel Walk” during Reunion Weekend loudly complaining about how the tunnels were closed to my class, ruining the tour for everybody.

2016: In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Carleton College, the Carleton Archives release a photo retrospective, “The 150 Greatest Tunnel Artworks and the Pipes That Block Them from View.”

2066: In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Carleton College, the tunnels are reopened so that students can travel to class without being exposed to the scalding triple-digit temperatures in the spring and fall. During winter term, students continue to walk outside, the better to enjoy Minnesota’s gorgeous 70-degree Februaries.

  • Banksy artwork in the tunnels? According to the author, sure!

  • Trompe l’oeil of a train tunnel within the Carleton tunnels.

  • Twister is a game of physical skill produced by Milton Bradley. Reproduced here without permission.

  • Tunnel underneath Carleton College


  • November 28 2016 at 2:38 pm
    LZ III

    Anticipating the cover three years before the album came out?  And a year before the band was formed?  I knew Banksy was good!

  • November 28 2016 at 3:59 pm
    Eric Hillemann

    Apologies accepted!

  • November 29 2016 at 1:32 pm
    Ellen Jennings, Class of 1978

    Thanks for the stroll through the tunnels of my memory. My favorite graffiti was:

    God is dead. --Nietzsche

    Nietzsche is dead.--God



  • August 4 2018 at 8:26 pm
    Randy '90

    Where's the chain spider web in the dark tunnel corner near the Evans tunnel entry? That thing was super creepy.

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