Friday, June 12, 2015

Sepia Saturday: Mayhem in the Tunnel

Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.


This week’s Sepia Saturday photo prompted my recollection of the myths surrounding the mysterious tunnels crisscrossing beneath the Quad at James Madison University (Go Dukes!). Surely every freshman who has proudly donned the purple and gold can recite in detail those stories of murder and suicide.

MURDER
Supposedly a student in the 1920s had been receiving little gifts from a secret admirer. One day she received a note asking her to meet this mystery man in the tunnel going to Harrison Hall. Her friends tried to dissuade her because there had been reports of a Peeping Tom on campus.

Naturally she ignored her friends, dressed up, and spritzed on her favorite perfume. When she arrived at their secret rendezvous in the tunnel, the “boyfriend” turned out to be a crazed killer. He attacked her, raped her, and eventually killed her. Her friends found her body in the tunnel the next day.

Listen carefully – you might hear her footsteps. You might even smell her perfume.

SUICIDE
A young student suffered a broken heart when her best beau announced he was no longer in love with her. When classes ended for the Thanksgiving break, she went into the tunnel between Harrison and Ashby Hall and hanged herself. 

THE ABANDONED BABY
A young girl gave birth in secret in one of the tunnels and abandoned her baby there. If you’re close to where the baby was left, you can hear his cries echoing through the tunnel.

*     *    *  

Yes, I heard these stories when I arrived on the campus of Madison College in 1969. I’m sure I listened wide-eyed. I even peered around, searching for an entrance to the tunnel from the laundry room in Spotswood Hall's basement. Yes, I listened, but I never heard a baby crying or any footsteps, nor did I smell perfume in Harrison Hall.

While these stories are part of the character of JMU, a shared legacy that binds alumni, it is doubtful that they were told when my grandaunt Violetta Davis was a student at the Normal School in 1922, or when my grandaunt Velma Davis was at Harrisonburg Teachers College in 1925, or even in 1950 when my mother was a student at Madison College.

Harrisonburg Teachers College 1923 now JMU  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Harrisonburg Teachers College 1923, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Why not? Probably because these urban legends did not take off until the tunnels were closed to students around 1960. Before then students could actually use the tunnels to get from one building to another – handy especially in rain or snow. However, not all the tunnels could handle pedestrian traffic. Some have only crawl space. 

JMU tunnel  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
One of the tunnels - note graffiti on left wall
Delta Sigma Pi fraternity

Science Hall Maury Hall 1923 http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Science Hall - Maury Hall 1922-23
Dormitory 1 Jackson Hall 1924  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Dormitory 1 - Jackson Hall 1924-25

The first tunnel was 20 feet wide with 15-foot ceilings. It connected the first two buildings that formed The Normal School, then known as Science Hall and Dormitory #1 (today Maury and Jackson). The tunnel served to distribute heat to the buildings from the steam plant located behind Harrison Hall. 

Once Harrison was built, it became the campus hub, housing the post office and dining hall. Even in inclement weather, checking mail and enjoying a hot meal were important, so the tunnel was often the students’ route of choice, despite the dim lighting. 
Spotswood Hall 1922-23  http://jollettetc.blogspot.com
Violetta's dorm - Spotswood  1922-23

Eventually the tunnel was extended to Dormitory #2 (Ashby) and its mirror across the Quad, Spotswood, and to other buildings as the college expanded.


Fifty-five years ago, student access to the tunnels was prohibited. Now only JMU service employees are allowed in. But who listens to “No”? Breaking into the tunnels has been one of the top activities among dare-devil students ever since. It is also at the top of many students' pre-graduation bucket list.

I’m an obedient child, so I never ventured beyond the locked door in Harrison, but thanks to YouTube and the Quad Squad of JMU, we can take a virtual walk through those mysterious tunnels and listen for the footsteps of that murdered girl.




Follow this tunnel to Sepia Saturday.  Watch your step.


© 2015, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.

41 comments:

  1. Goodness! Spooky!

    My college had steam heat pipes too. One winter, one of them cracked, enveloping the dorm I was in with a dense fog! It took them over a week to find and fix the leak.

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    1. Oh my - did you have to evacuate?

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  2. Secret tunnels, whatever next. Nothing like these stories at my university.

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    1. Now that surprises me. I would think just about any old school with old buildings would have some kind of urban legend attached to it.

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  3. Secret tunnels, tragedies, ghosts - no wonder everyone wants to go there!

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    1. I'm sure that's why the waiting list gets longer every year! HA

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  4. That's exciting. Did Violetta, Velma or Momma ever mention using the tunnels?

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  5. The tunnels would engender legends. The temptation to explore probably does motivate students to visit the tunnels uninvited. Nice little story.

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    1. Thanks -- and yes, you're right about that. One theory about the legends was they were invented by faculty to scare students in order to keep them OUT of the tunnels. If that's true, the plan definitely back-fired.

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  6. Oh my gosh, so very interesting!! I would have been like you, I wouldn't have ventured out since I'm obedient and compliant. I would imagine my son and a group of his friends would have though and perhaps they would have had some mysterious things to report of what they saw.

    How cool you went to the same college as your mom!

    betty

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  7. Spooky! I can't imagine going down there unless it was with a lot of other people. What does the Quad Squad do, apart from showing us the tunnel?

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    1. There was no such thing as the "Quad Squad" when I went there so I don't know how official this organization is. They have several You Tubes online, one of which is a series of interviews with students about their bucket list, another questioning students about JMU trivia, and of course, this one in the tunnels.

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  8. There is no way I’d venture down there, far too spooky and claustrophobic, but how exciting to actually have a tunnel story from your campus!

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    1. I was glad to find the video and a photo online since my own pictures show nothing that suggests a tunnel.

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  9. What a story combining fact and fiction(??) The initial stories of the murder, suicide and abandoned baby were definitely spooky. - but was there anything in the local papers to verify them?

    Family History Fun

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    1. No, no stories in the paper - which is how we know for sure these are just good tales probably designed to scare the incoming freshman class.

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  10. Wow! Ya, I think I'll take the snow over going in one of those tunnels.

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    1. When the tunnels were in use, the campus was not that big or spread out. If the tunnels connected the entire campus today, I'd opt for the tunnels.

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  11. Wendy,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/06/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-june-12-2015.html

    Have a great weekend!

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  12. Those tunnels would be neat way to get around campus in bad weather - IF you're not claustrophobic! Stanford Univ. here in Calif. used to have a 'secret' tunnel leading out to & emerging from the center of the field in their football stadium. I don't know if it's still used? The Stanford band in particular used to use it. During football games and other events they'd have a teepee erected over the top of the exit (this was back in the days when they were the Stanford Indians) and then the entire band would appear to come out of the lone little teepee in the middle of the field. It was a humorous bit - even if you knew the tunnel was there.

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    1. I've seen performances like that on tv -- I bet that was funny seeing an entire band emerge from a teepee.

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  13. I can just imagine the wide-eyed, naive freshmen hearing these stories, Wendy, then nervously wondering about noises and fragrances whenever they were near a tunnel. But it would have been fun to go down with a group of friends, don't you think?

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    1. When I was a student, I didn't know where the "official" entrance was, but I did see a door in the basement of Spotswood Hall but it was REALLY locked. I think too it would have been fun to explore, so I'm glad for the YouTube video to give me an idea of what it is like.

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  14. Wow! What a great story. You did well this week Wendy!

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  15. I would be afraid to go through those tunnels, but I really enjoyed the video.

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    1. I'm glad I found the video -- I enjoyed it too.

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  16. I would be petrified of going through those tunnels, actually I would be getting nightmares about them.

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    1. Your nightmares might form the basis of a great next novel!

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  17. Oh Wendy, you sure know how to delight us with such colorful storytelling, which rarely do we really want completely solved, what would be the fun in that! This always makes the perfect bonfire tales for sure. A most clever way to take our theme! A+++ can I do that?! Hehehe, of course I can!

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    1. I agree -- there is no fun in knowing how a magician performs his trick. And there's no fun in proving such tales are true or false, either one. The fun is in the repeated telling.

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  18. I took a tour of an old 'insane asylum' that is now a college which included going into the tunnels. It was fascinating to see them and hear the stories (not nearly as gruesome as your tunnel stories!)

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    1. An insane asylum turned college -- somehow that seems just PERFECT, considering how college can make you feel like you're going crazy sometimes.

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  19. Cobweb scary maybe, but I'm more scared of the bad weather conditions that would inspire an idea of building underground tunnels. Is the climate in Harrisonburg that much improved or are the students better insulated now?

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    1. Providing shelter from the weather was only a secondary purpose - the tunnels were never intended for student use, just to heat the buildings. Today that campus is huge, so students had better be better insulated!

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  20. Great post Wendy. So creepy---rain, snow, or I don't care what, I would not be tempted to take the tunnels. Are they purely lore or is there any truth to any of them?

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    1. Nope - no truth. Just a good spooky story to share by flashlight.

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  21. I don't care what the weather is like outside,
    you'd never catch me there!!!
    :D

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