With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Tunnel Vision

When you dig beyond all purpose, digging becomes the purpose.

Blue Morning, by George Bellows, 1909. [National Gallery of Art]


Underground communities, in real life, are usually short-term and provisional. For the most part, people live underground much in the same way children can be said to live in treehouses: It can be done, but not for very long, and not without a significant amount of help from people on the ground. People go underground both for safety and to fight more covertly during wartime, and afterward because they fear nuclear fallout; to avoid extreme weather; to facilitate smuggling; during long-term mining contracts; for a very particular kind of fun; and occasionally because they have nowhere else to go. 


In Norway, there are a series of Cold-War-era tunnels, called the Sentralanlegget or Central Facility, somewhere in the mountains outside of Oslo. These tunnels were designed to accommodate the Norwegian royal family and government personnel in case of emergency. They have never been used but their exact location remains classified. Photographs of the tunnel’s entrances are periodically scrubbed from geo-browsers like Google Earth. There are underground war rooms in Malta, in London, in Hubei, in Nagano, in Lombardy; many of them are now open, at least in part, to the public as museums. There is a “Presidential Emergency Operations Center” beneath the East Wing of the White House, of course. 


There are many structures casually nicknamed “The Underground City” that do not in truth merit the name: usually a loosely-connected series of tunnels and skybridges connecting the offices, hotel complexes, parking garages, and shopping centers of various downtown districts, as in Montreal’s La ville souterraine, the Oklahoma City Underground, Underground Atlanta, and the Houston Tunnels. They are more novel, less mundane than ordinary sidewalks and bridges, but no one stays here. Sometimes an enterprising development group will try to capitalize on the gimmick, as with Barcelona’s underground mall, Avenida de la Luz, which operated fitfully for a few decades before closing in 1990. In Turin the eco-cult known as the Federation of Damanhur has built a series of underground “Temples of Humankind.” The temples are pleasantly chintzy; they were built without benefit of either engineers or architects, and look it, covered in the sort of “wizards and nude babes” murals one normally sees only in off-license smoke shops. They’re open to visitors at a rate of 7 euros for a single tour, “lifetime access” for 18 euros, or a virtual tour of the Hall of Victory through their website for free.


Without funding and direction from governments or institutions, underground structures built by individuals are usually referred to as “hobby tunnels.” They can be found anywhere, but seem to be especially popular in the United Kingdom and the United States. Often they take years or decades to complete. Occasionally they are built in secret. Some of them are built compulsively; in such cases these hobby tunnels may become famous, especially if they are discovered after their inventors’ death. They ought to be considered distinct from the kind of underground structures created by entire communities as part of political or resistance movements, and often utilized for decades, even generations, such as the cave-cities of Cappadocia. The hobby tunnel is particular, idiosyncratic, and pointless (which also distinguishes hobby tunnels from the sort of underground structures used to commit crimes, as in the 2008 Fritzl case in Austria). Sometimes they are worse than pointless: the miner William “Burro” H. Schmidt spent more than thirty years, beginning around 1902, digging in the Mojave Desert. He claimed his tunnel would serve as a shortcut to the smelter nearest to his mining claim. It didn’t. He continued to dig long after the state put in a road that made the tunnel unnecessary in the first place. There is a pleasure in being underground that most people feel a little, or in part: It’s quiet, and peaceful, and cool. One gets a sense of how deeply compressed the effects of time become under the earth, in a way that is easy to forget on the surface. But you have to have a reason to keep going back there. It’s easy enough to understand how the idea of a shortcut could serve as a plausible motive for the first ten years or so of a dig. When you dig beyond all purpose; digging becomes the purpose.


Some hobby tunnelists are taken unawares by such desires: They excavate a small portion of their own backyard to install a wine cellar, or to put in a well, and then never stop. A man named Baldassare Forestiere spent forty years digging out a series of catacombs, grottos, and gardens underneath the city of Fresno, California before his death in 1946. You can take a tour of the Forestiere Underground Gardens today, and I highly recommend you do whenever you are next in the area. But hobby tunnels, like most passion projects, rarely outlive those who dug them out for long. William Lyttle spent forty years digging tunnels in his Hackney backyard. The holes were almost immediately filled in with concrete once they were discovered. Lyttle himself was evicted. Forestiere’s gardens are the exception rather than the rule. People who dig compulsively seem to prefer to excavate their own tunnels, rather than extend somebody else’s.


British historian Allan Fea’s 1901 Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places stokes nearly every possible imaginary claim about the hidden underground: “The secret chamber is unrivalled even by the haunted house for the mystery and romance surrounding it,” Fea writes, and for all that Secret Chambers presents itself as a historical survey, it traffics mainly in local legends (a recurring theme for works that claim to “reveal all” about the nature of the underground world). Chapter titles include “Mysterious Rooms, Deadly Pits” and “Concealed Doors, Subterranean Passages,” the latter claiming that “Upon the authority of the Princess Lichtenstein, it appears there is … a blood-stain [in Holland House, Kensington] which nothing can efface!”


Views in the Tunnel After the Break, Minnesota, by William H. Jacoby, c. 1870. [The J. Paul Getty Museum]


In fiction, the world underground is even more crowded.[1] People descend there oftener, stay there longer, and build more permanent settlements. Enough generations pass and the people living underground become newly distinct from people who happen to go underground; they become mole people. The most famous of these are the Morlocks from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (who would go on to make further appearances in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Man Who Loved Morlocks, and Marvel Comics throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries). There are also mole people in Demolition ManC.H.U.D., in Lovecraft, in Futurama, while in Jordan Peele’s Us there are as many people living underground as there are living overhead. Mole people are rarely protagonists (Jeff Long’s 1999 novel The Descent, not to be confused with the unrelated 2005 horror movie of the same name, is a notable exception); they pop up suddenly, or threaten to, and are usually beaten back. That they exist at all is often development enough; closer inquiry is rarely desirable. 


The Tunnel Builders, by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1909. [The Minneapolis Institute of Art]


Tunnel communities — some real, some imagined — are a frequently-recurring subject in urban legends. One of the most popular treatments comes from Jennifer Toth’s 1993 bestseller The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, published by the Chicago Review Press. The book is slickly naive: “I hope to dismiss the myth of animal-like underground dwellers,” reads the author’s note, but Toth breathlessly repeats the most improbable claims thereafter about “natural caverns” beneath New York’s subway system, about nonexistent stations and tunnels, about “birdlike” people who “don’t talk to each other with words [but] use noise that sounds like birds or maybe the wind.” Joseph Brennan, a subway historian and Columbia University employee, published a review titled “Fantasy in The Mole People” in 1996 that refuted much of her account: “The subway and rail system tunnels are all less than a century old, and there are no large segments ‘abandoned and forgotten.’” There had been otherwise-houseless people camping in certain parts of the Amtrak tunnel under Riverside Park built by Robert Moses in the 1930s, and later claimed by graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape, whose work covers the walls. The Freedom Tunnel’s encampments were subject to surveillance and eventually displacement by the police — much like encampments built above-ground — but the fantasy of an extensive network of permanent underground dwellers extending into a series of caves beneath Manhattan is just that. Yet how to disprove such beliefs? Recently, Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire has posted the following daunting sign for hopeful visitors: “The steps beyond this gate lead to a well, and not an elaborate network of tunnels linking local landmarks.” Such a sign, one must imagine, will do more to stoke speculation than to subdue it. 


One of the most common characteristics of subterranean people in fiction is the desire to resurface: They are like us, they are monstrously unlike us, they are everywhere, they want to come up. For this reason, hobbits would not qualify as “mole people”; they spend as much time aboveground as they do below it, and as many of them live in houses as they do dugouts. In practically any fiction which includes them, mole people are dangerous, opportunistic, and an intrinsic rebuke to whatever society exists above them. They exist in hordes, like rumors. Since they proliferate out of sight, they are believed to do so on an exponential scale. There are more tunnels in the mind than in the earth; no matter what structures or people we might find underground, there are always more in our imagination. One cannot disprove the existence of a tunnel unless one digs everywhere; one cannot dig everywhere; therefore there is always at least one more secret than the ones we have already found.


[1] There’s an odd, often-ugly related tradition of “Hollow Earth” fiction and pseudoscience which imagines the planet’s interior as largely empty, usually in order to fill it with racist conspiracy theories.