Why's That: Tunneling Under Kalamazoo
This story originally aired in Aug. 2019. When Jon Stradinger was in a medical ethics class, a fact about the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, previously known as the State Hospital, got his attention.
“We had a nurse who used to work at the asylum come and talk,” he said. The nurse mentioned that staff had once used underground passageways to get around the campus.
“She also started a conversation about how many tunnels there were under Kalamazoo, they connected all the old buildings apparently before there was snow removal,” he added.
Jon’s wondering where old tunnels can be found in the city.
The State Hospital once had another campus at its residential farms southwest of town. By 1970 it was abandoned, and the tunnels became a destination for adventure-seekers, against officials’ wishes.
“They’re kind of fun when you think about the interconnection that’s hidden, and all that kind of thing. It’s like the mystery of it,” said Sharon Ferraro, the City of Kalamazoo historic preservation coordinator.
“But invariably,” she added, “they were something practical.”
In her job, Ferraro has heard about tunnels that probably don’t exist outside of people’s imaginations. Like the one under Lovell Street where an army truck is supposedly parked, or a secret passage for drinkers during Prohibition.
“I’ve heard rumors that there was a speakeasy in the Vine Neighborhood that had a tunnel that you could get out of the basement into a garage that was nearby, but when I was in that basement I didn’t see any evidence of that at all,” she said.
One place where you can find tunnels, at least for now, is the former Nazareth College campus on Gull Road. Ferraro says students walked from their residences to their classes through underground passageways. Update: much of the Nazareth College campus was torn down in 2020.
“I remember friends that were students saying ‘Oh yeah, we used to just get in our pajamas’ - because it was all girls - ‘We’d just go to class in our pajamas and we’d go through the tunnel to go over to the classrooms.’”
Between the main campus on Oakland Drive and the “Colony Farm” at Asylum Lake, it’s hard to imagine that any place in Kalamazoo had more tunnels than the State Hospital. The main facility has moved into one big building, the one that surrounds the hospital’s landmark water tower, so Ferraro says it doesn’t need them for foot traffic anymore. But that doesn’t mean they’re all gone. Ferraro says she saw the outside of a State Hospital tunnel that connected to the former Activity Therapy building near Oliver Street.
“It looked just like a worm, a giant worm,” she said.
Western Michigan University, the building’s most recent owner, saved the tunnel when it tore the facility down. Ferraro thinks it might still carry a heating or electrical line.
“The repaired a couple of spots and re-coated it with waterproof material and then buried it again,” she said.
Ferraro says the tunnels at the Oakland Drive campus of the State Hospital are “absolutely not accessible to the public” since they’re within a secure area.
The Colony Farm, on land that's now part of the Asylum Lake Preserve, was another matter. By the end of the 1960s the Hospital had ended its farm program and left the property, but the tunnels remained.
Garrett Collins was a sophomore in high school in 1971. He and a friend were out exploring in the car he’d recently bought when they stopped at Asylum Lake. That led them to the tunnels.
“They were cement walls, cement and concrete walls and brick ceilings because I remember they were vaulted,” Collins, who is now a concert pianist and organist in San Francisco, told WMUK.
Collins says people had left beer bottles and cans in the tunnels. “There were a lot of cots and dirty mattresses,” he added.
Of course, he and his friend weren’t the only ones out there.
“We would see other kids coming at us with flashlights so we knew there were a lot of people there, and that’s when I got the idea to scare everybody to death.”
Collins, the organist, recorded himself playing J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, a piece used to eerie effect in some adaptations of “The Phantom of the Opera.” He and his friend found a set of pipes that would carry the sound through the tunnels. They hit play.
“We freaked everybody out, they went running and screaming and we thought, ‘well this is kind of a fun deal’ so we did it every Friday night for a couple years,” he said.
None of that would have been possible even a few years later, after WMU took charge of the property. Not surprisingly, Western didn’t want teenagers or anyone else roaming the tunnels. In 1977 it had the entries demolished.
That meant visiting was out of the question, but the Kalamazoo Public Schools agreed to show “Why’s That?” a tunnel that runs between the former Central High School, now Chenery Auditorium, and El Sol Elementary. On the Chenery side, the tunnel starts in the boiler room. It ends in a sub-basement below the boys’ bathroom at El Sol.
“It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s crumbling,” KPS’ Karen Jackson warns as she hands out hard hats. (It is not, however, packed with asbestos, as many old steam tunnels are.)
Jackson says KPS has tunnels at a number of its buildings. It’s hard to say exactly when this one was built, but it’s probably at least 96 years old.
Pink-orange brick chips carpet the floor as Jackson walks through the vaulted passage with wires and steam pipes on one side.
It’s tepid this time of year, but Jackson says the tunnel gets hot when the steam is on.
“In the winter you can tell where the tunnel is in the parking lot because that part of the parking lot is usually melted,” she said.
Jon Stradinger, who wanted to know more about Kalamazoo tunnels, came with his wife Lisa Hudson.
“It kind of looks like something that you’d see in a World War II movie, like smuggling art through,” Hudson says.
After the tour, Interim Superintendent Gary Start tells the group that unlike the tunnels at Nazareth and the State Hospital, this one’s not for regular traffic.
“You’ve seen something that very few people have,” he said.
Hudson says she was impressed with the tunnel’s condition.
“It seems like a lot of bricks are disintegrating but at least dust isn’t falling as we’re walking, which is nice.”