Every few years, a piece emerges in the Independent, BSR, or the Providence Journal with the message "Did you know there is a mile long, underground railway tunnel underneath College Hill?" The myths surrounding the Providence East Side Railway Tunnel stretch for about as long as the underground railway does.
People who know about the tunnel describe its location in the Rhode Island tradition. In proximity to landmarks that no longer exist. It runs nearly east to west, starting at 101 North Main Street (behind Mills Tavern, where that parking lot used to be) and ending 50 feet east of Gano Street (into the woods, on the Seekonk River, by the enormous rusted train bridge).
In its current state of abandonment, the tunnel is dark and chilled, but its emptiness does not breed silence. The dripping water from the ceiling creates a cacophony, ranging from a trickle to a torrent. The incessant sweat of the walls breeds some stellar mineral formations. Rain from the ceilings forms stalactites at the seams of the roof, and their counterpart stalagmites at the tunnel's floor. Iron oxide coagulates where groundwater trickles through the cracks in the walls. This was not part of the city's original plan.
WORKING ON THE RAILROAD
Construction began on the East Side Railroad tunnel in May 1906. Since College Hill was too steep for a train to traverse, developers decided to build a track underground. Building finished a day ahead of schedule when the two crews, simultaneously working from both ends, met in the middle. On November 15, 1908, a hundred years ago last Saturday, the tunnel opened for the first train.
After thirty years and the advent of the automobile, ridership began to dwindle and the operators eliminated passenger service altogether. After 1938, the cars carried mostly oil and coal through the East Side tunnel. In the 1950s, when traffic patterns shifted further from rails to highways, the second track was removed. The continuation into Bristol was abandoned in 1976, and by 1981 the last train traversed the tracks.
In its heyday the train carried both commuters and daytrippers, often across the bridge to the racetracks at Narragansett. Neighborhood children played by the trains--flattening pennies on the tracks and participating in the coming of age ritual of "humping" trains, hanging on ladders and jumping onto open cars.
The train was part of Brown University tradition as well. Because the Sci Li is directly over the tunnel, when the train still ran it would shake the basement. A Brown alum who graduated in the 70s told BSR that after feeling a rumble, students would run to the 14th floor to try and see the train emerging on the other side.
Now, rats are the only active population in this underground space. During the winter months, some of Providence's homeless population seek refuge in the tunnel's moderate shelter. As with any relatively abandoned location, the underground tunnel is also a clandestine smoking spot.
Providence residents have left their marks on the tunnel. Beer cans lay scattered about the floor. Splotches of graffiti mark the walls, including several black and white portraits, all with the names scratched out below. Among the portraits is an unmistakable and unironic likeness of Buddy Cianci, the famed and defamed former Providence Mayor.
The tunnel's mysterious lighting and catacomb-like arches also provide inspiration to Providence area artists who have made the tunnel a centerpiece of installation art. In February 2006, the Rhode Island Foundation, which awards a hundred thousand dollars each year to artistic projects, gave nearly $11 thousand to Jay Critchley's plan to chronicle the "underground" history of Rhode Island. Critchley concentrated on the East Side Railway Tunnel and worked with the Broad Street Studio youth art program to create a music, poetry and spoken word performance there. Ten years earlier, in 1996, famed light installation artist Leni Schwendinger used the tunnel for her public art project. She created massive, glittering, jeweled sculptures to cover the ceiling of the tunnel. Metropolis magazine complimented Schwendinger's use of "motion, transit and light...the daily commute is itself luminously commuted."
MAY DAY, MAYDAY
The mystery of the tunnel fit into the mythos of another Providence artist, H. P. Lovecraft. The famed horror and weird fiction author was born 18 years before the tunnel was constructed just a few blocks north of his Angell Street home. In his short stories, Lovecraft often used train and tunnel imagery as a signal of the ravages of the industrial age. In Lovecraft's The Nameless City, the narrator crawls in complete darkness through miles of tunnels below a desert, in pursuit of the source of an odd noise. In this story, Lovecraft considers the clash of civilization against our more primitive, barbaric impulses. This struggle between society and nature foreshadowed what is now known as the Providence Tunnel Riot of 1993.
Advertised on quarter-page slips of paper leaked around the city, the pending May Day celebration of 1993 was cloaked in mystery. Today accounts differ even about the invitation. Some say that below a wood-block sketch of a dancing skeleton, very small print advertised "May 1, The Train Tunnel, Midnight." One attendee, quoted in Providence's The Agenda, remembers an additional tagline: "Destroy, Play, Smoke and Drink."
Either way, on the night of May 1, a group of Brown and RISD students began their Beltain celebrations at the western entrance of the railway tunnel below Benefit Street, with elaborate costumes, animal masks, pounding drums and torches. According to attendants, the scene was small and relatively mellow. Although the party migrated to the bowels of the tunnel, beyond sight of the portal's entrance, the noises reverberated into the otherwise quiet night.
Responding to the noises emerging from the tunnel, the Providence Police set about investigating the celebration. Their arrival prompted a violent misunderstanding between civilians and law enforcement. As the cops entered the scene, students began to protest whether the policemen had jurisdiction in the area. Soon an aggressive struggle erupted between the two groups. The origins of the arguments are hazy and contradictory. Most accounts point to a confrontation over a pair of drumsticks, seized from a musician by the police.
As the situation escalated, the police used tear gas and the students responded by throwing rocks, bricks and other debris from the tunnel's floor. The chaos lasted nearly two hours, and ended with eight arrests, three damaged police cruisers and seven injured officers. One policeman, Sergeant John Kaya, sustained injuries from a thrown piece of plaster that required 60 stitches to his head.
The next day, the Providence press sensationalized the story. The Providence Journal reported a party with "satanic ritual." Channel 12 reported, "Police say it began as a satanic party inside an abandoned railroad tunnel. It ended in a wild riot." Mayor Buddy Cianci even issued a statement the next day, "Who expected RISD and Brown University students, my god, you think they'd teach them a little more than that for the $25,000 in tuition they pay. You think they'd teach them a little more than to go to a pagan ritual and light a fire in a tunnel."
Students who returned a year later, on May Day 1994, discovered thick, corrugated steel, pierced at each end with a locked door blocking their way. The tunnel was boarded just the day before; city officials made very clear the tunnel was off-limits, for parties, exploring, tribal rituals, or otherwise.
USING OLD DIGS
In 2003, after years of encasement away from the public, it seemed that this century would see a resurgence of the railroad tunnel. Brown alum Robert Manchester, a lawyer from Burlington, Vermont, initiated a meeting with the Mayor of East Providence, city officials and Brown University to reveal his Crook Point Proposal. Manchester's project included 400 housing units as well as a bus or tram system connecting Crook Point development residents to downtown. Although Crook Point has yet to move beyond the planning stages, Transit 2020, the transportation portion of the project, has made some progress in connecting other suburban residents. Transit 2020 has long considered using the existing tunnel as part of their transportation plan. Jeanne Boyle, planning director for the City of East Providence, told the Independent, "I was part of a tour that Mr. Manchester conducted with some engineers when they took a look at reusing the tunnel for rail. Structurally it is sound, but it would cost a great deal of money to restore and reuse...In terms of the current fiscal climate no one is looking at it in the short term, but it's hard to build a tunnel these days, so having one is something to look at."
It is uncertain whether the East Side Railway Tunnel will ever be revitalized. The history of the tunnel, ranging from such a profitable construction to a place in the lives of commuters and neighbors, has a promising beginning. Its later history is as dark and mysterious as the abandoned track--serving as a muse to writers and photographers, and inspiration for failed student celebrations. But the most interesting aspect of the tunnel's place in Providence's history is its obsolescence. Most residents of the East Side have either never learned of, or forgotten, its presence. The city continues above this tunnel--unaware of the massive underworld existing below.
MARGARET LANGE B'11 comes from a land down under.