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Tunnel Rats: Sewanee’s Secret Passageways; a Fact or Myth?

Mitch Shakespeare

Opinions Editor

Stories have been passed down throughout the years of the existence of secret passageways and tunnels around Sewanee’s central campus, yet solid evidence supporting these claims have been few and far between since these stories began to gain popularity. 

My own belief is that these secret passageways and tunnels do not exist, at least in the capacity that the legends and myths make them out to be. There are certainly many hallways-less-traveled across campus which can create liminal feelings and the sense that these are ‘secret’ in some way, especially when traveling at night. A great example of this is the bottom floor of Guerry, whose hallways can connect you from Convocation to Carnegie almost completely ‘underground,’ albeit by adding several minutes to your trip.

It is possible that perhaps many of the older buildings had underground sections used for storage, but those passageways have likely long been covered up or blocked off for many years now. More possible is that these stories have become classic Sewanee tall tales, receiving hyperbole and a sprinkling of fiction each time they’re told. 

The central story follows as such: there is a network of tunnels that run under campus, connecting various buildings to one another. The most commonly spread variation of the story claims that there is specifically a tunnel connecting the basement of Convocation Hall to the University Archives, formerly the Kappa Sigma house. In one variation of the story, this tunnel in particular appears to be a catacomb or catacomb-like. In others, sometimes the tunnel connects the two buildings or are completely separate entities. 

Seemingly all Sewanee legends lead back to the Kappa Sigs. The now-dissolved chapter of Kappa Sigma at Sewanee disbanded in 1970, leaving in its wake countless urban legends and myths. Some of the richest stories first year students hear when they arrive on campus are the alleged exploits and endeavors of this bygone fraternity, including those referencing the aforementioned tunnels. 

The story goes on to explain that after the fraternity was thrown off campus for an incident involving a military convoy, the disgruntled Kappa Sigs began to operate in these tunnels in lieu of no longer having a house, performing their secret rites and initiation rituals out of sight. In some variations, the Kappa Sigs are caught in the tunnels and handed down an even lengthier banishment, and in others they were never caught and continue to operate to this day. 

Unfortunately, many of these stories are, in fact, tall tales and urban legends, and I believe that this story is no different than any others that are passed around. This is mainly due to the fact that Kappa Sig wasn’t kicked off campus at all, but willinging disbanded due to an increasing housing debt that couldn’t be paid off. From my own conversations with the Kappa Sigs last year, many of the brothers simply began to associate with other fraternities on campus, leaving little to no reason to restart the chapter underground. 

One cannot say for certain as to where these stories originated, but for most of Sewanee’s urban legends, there is always a shred of truth buried underneath the fictional strata that students have added throughout the years. It is my guess that the same principle could’ve been applied here. Perhaps a discrete crawl space existed underneath Kappa Sigma or Convocation Hall. Someone then referred to it as a secret passageway. Someone else then said that these secret passageways actually connect Kappa Sigma and Convocation. Somewhere down the line, another person added that the disgruntled Kappa Sigs took refuge in these passageways. As for the next time the story is told, who knows what else might be added to spice up the story. 

One shred of documentation on the existence of these alleged tunnel systems, perhaps causing confusion and increasing believability in the story, comes from an out of place piece written for the Sewanee Purple by Simon Boes. The article from 2017, titled “Chamber of Secrets Opened at Sewanee,” explained that a room “similar to the Hogwarts style ‘Chamber of Secrets,’” had been found underneath the stone stage in Guerry-Garth. In typical fashion, the users of the ‘secret room’ were the descendants of the banned-for-life Sewanee Kappa Sigs, who had continued to operate the fraternity underground, both literally and figuratively.

At face value, this source seems to confirm the stories of secret passageways and tunnels, especially in relation to the mystical Kappa Sigs who were rumored to use them. There is one glaring issue with this source, however: it is completely satirical. The Sewanee Purple website fails to include the section in which this article was published, potentially leading modern readers to assume it to be legitimate news. Looking into the print version of Vol. 197 through the University Archives, however, we can link the article to a section run by Boes called “Simon’s Satire,” a section purely dedicated to The Onion-esqe news pieces. 

I have, like many students before me, tried to search for these tunnels using the information provided by the legends. During my freshman year, I decided to go find these tunnels in the basement of Convocation Hall one night, and while half expecting to find them, I ended up leaving with nothing. The mood in that basement definitely screams ‘there are secret passageways here,’ but unfortunately the only ‘tunnel’ I was able to find was a crawl space for pipes, electrical wiring, and the mice I could hear screeching from within it. Safe to say, I did not explore any further.

Convocation Hall is one of the oldest original buildings from the University’s early years, having served as a gymnasium and the campus library before the creation of Fowler and DuPont. Its age adds to the ability for students to generate legends surrounding it, especially surrounding the potential secrets that might remain hidden within its walls. Going through old photos of the building’s interior, both when it served as a library and gymnasium, do not yield any evidence supporting the idea of secret passageways, however. 

It is interesting to note that many of the walls in the basement have paneling placed over the original stone foundation, obscuring whatever might be behind them. Tunnels? Rogue Kappa Sigs? A wall? Who knows. Whatever the reason for the paneling, the basement provides no solid evidence of these secret passageways; no secret doors in the walls, no secret buttons, not even a fake book used as a lever to reveal an entrance. If you are going to go out yourself to try and find these tunnels, I would advise you to begin your search elsewhere. 

None of this is to say that students are somehow gullible or in the wrong for believing or spreading the legends of secret tunnels. That is not my purpose in writing this piece. Sometimes it is important to question the legitimacy of legends and myths to find the hidden truth behind them. After all, truth can be stranger than fiction. In the case of this legend, however, the truth here seems to be illusive, and its origin remains unknown. Perhaps there is evidence that I have missed or am not privy to, but until I come face-to-face with that evidence, I will remain a skeptic. 

That being said, I encourage this legend to continue being told and expanded upon. The oral tradition of folklore here at Sewanee is something that makes it the quirky, mysterious, and storied university that has drawn, and will continue to draw, students to its gates. Stories of secret tunnels and passageways are sure to ignite the spirit of adventure in students, giving them a reason to explore and learn more about this place. 

And what’s to say these tunnels don’t exist? Perhaps all the stories told thus far have gotten the locations of these entrances wrong. Perhaps, somewhere on this campus, lies a secret passageway still waiting to be discovered and for its story to be told. Keep searching, and keep the legend alive.