by Chris Clemens
It’s no secret that the months between October and March can be brutal in Upstate. Single digit temperatures make going outside pretty tough to handle, particularly if you haven’t grown up in the region and acclimated to the inclement conditions. So, if you’re a college student who has to walk from building to building in the snowy sleet and iced up sidewalks to get to and from classes, you’d probably wish that you had attended a college where all the buildings were connected by a series of underground tunnels to shelter you from the elements. Imagine walking across campus in the middle of a torrential downpour or even Mother Nature’s worst snowstorm in nothing other than shorts and sneakers.
The University of Rochester isn’t a school I could afford to attend, but as a Rochesterian I was still curious about the system of tunnels that lay beneath the campus. After snagging a map from the University of Rochester’s website and reading up a little on the interwebs, I went one night to do a little exploring and snag some photos.
I started the evening by asking for help in the library for a history of the tunnels and found myself lost in the stacks on level 300m. I can’t deny that the process of trying to find one particular book led to me think that the potential for ever going back to college probably just wasn’t in the cards for me, and ultimately I was unsuccessful. Instead, after multiple tweets and emails out asking for help I was directed to the Rare Books department in the Rush Rhees Library, but my calls weren’t returned. I’ve reached out to multiple alums, staff at both the college and hospital and I’ve gotten just about nowhere with a juicy backstory on the tunnels.
I did get a message back from an architect at the university though. He explained that the tunnels were actually an incredible foresight on behalf of the team responsible for building the campus. Most of the tunnels are actually just basements to their respective buildings which are connected by passageways underground. The original purpose for the connections was to make maintenance and construction an easier endeavor all year round. Having fully accessible tunnels connecting each building meant being able to access pipes, ductwork and electric that normally would be buried and need to be dug up to be fixed or serviced. It was only later that the decision to make other tunnels for the purposes of walking around the campus during bad weather a reality.
According to the RocWiki page for the tunnel system, these were developed in the 1920’s when Strong Memorial Hospital opened, but the tunnels under the River Campus of the University weren’t developed until the 1930’s. Over time as the campus developed, the tunnel system was expanded to include those ‘pedestrian-purposed only’ tunnels and at one point students could walk from Strong Memorial Hospital over to the University’s River Campus and reach nearly all the buildings without even seeing daylight. Since then, a few of the tunnels have been closed off to student access and are used only for maintenance and personnel access. I’ve heard that the now currently closed tunnels were locked up because of sexual assault concerns–though, I wasn’t able to ever find evidence to back that up and appear to just be rumors.
While the commercial looking electrical bus ducts and sewage pipes are kind of interesting with the expanding water pipes clunking and banging, easily the most interesting of all the tunnels is the one that lies below the Eastman Quad. For decades now, it has been a student right of passage to paint on the walls. A quick Google search turns up a few stories of alums mentioning how having the chance to paint the tunnels is something everyone should do before graduating. I’ve heard both that anyone can paint the tunnels, and that Greek clubs are the ones who are allowed to paint them. Either way, after the walls have received their share of graffiti, they are occasionally (I’ve read as often as every few weeks) painted over a solid color and students are allowed to begin again. According to a piece in the Campus Times in 2004, the tunnel has actually shrunk by 2.2 inches due to the layers of paint on the wall. Estimates conclude that in just over 1,000 years paint layers will be so thick that the tunnel will be entirely closed.
If you’re at all interested in checking out the tunnels, you may want to get there sometime before the year 3000 CE just to be sure you can make it all the way through. Though I’ve never gone to see them, RIT appears to have its very own system of tunnels as well…just in case you’re on a tunnel kick!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens