5 Secrets Buried on College Campuses

Some colleges have skeletons hidden below the surface
5 Secrets Buried on College Campuses

Let’s take a look at what’s going on below the public eye at American colleges. We mean stuff under the surface. Underground stuff.

No, we’re not talking about scandals that colleges hushed up. We’re talking about stuff that’s literally covered up, literally buried. When you go to colleges and dig up dirt (again, literally), you may unleash the secrets of... 

The Millennia-Old Mounds

What would you say is the oldest human-made structure on Earth? The Pyramids of Giza are a decent guess, since they were thousands of years old when the Coliseum went up. Other structures, like the pillars in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, are thousands of years older still. Over in Louisiana are a series of mounds that were made by some unidentified ancient people even before the pyramids went up. The oldest estimates say they contain cremated remains from 11,000 years ago, which would probably make the mounds the oldest remaining structures made by any humans, period. 

LSU Campus Mounds

Spatms/Wiki Commons

The oldest humans were big fans of boobs.

Even if those wildest estimates aren’t accurate, these mounds are spectacularly old. They are not, however, some remote archaeological site. They are a part of the campus of Louisiana State University, and are formally known as the LSU Campus Mounds. “They were here long before LSU existed,” says the college, in a bold example of understatement. And if you’re wondering what the school has done with this bit of land, well, mostly, it was known for tailgate parties. It’s been a great spot for hanging around on game day, and this partying left some wear and tear on the mounds, making them slide and split.

In 2010, LSU finally put an end to the destructive festivities. They cordoned off the mounds, and they’ve been working ever since on a more permanent plan to preserve the site. This wasn’t a hugely popular decision among veteran partiers, who figured that if the mounds lasted so many millennia, they can probably shrug off seven days a year of kids and alums playing drunken tag on them. The dispute will ultimately be settled by a battle between the boys of Delta Kappa Epsilon and the no-fun Dean, and this will feature a bulldozer, a parade and someone catching fire. 

The Ancient Tunnels

In the 19th century, Ohio State University buildings didn’t have what you’d call central heating. Instead, the various buildings linked up through a network of steam tunnels. These stretched out for four miles at first and then grew to twice that. Open the wrong door in some academic building, and you might stumble into these tunnels even today. 

Ohio State University tunnels

Ohio State University

Ohio State University. Go, Morlocks!

So, are these some convenient route from one building to another? Not exactly. The tunnels aren’t lit. Get lost down there, and maybe no one will find you because current maps don’t track all the tunnels’ twists. Summer’s an especially dangerous time to go spelunking. The temperature down there hits 160 degrees, you can’t touch a handrail without gloves, and professional crews can’t last more than 10 minutes. You shouldn’t venture there unless you’re the university’s official technical director of utilities. And if you are the university’s official technical director of utilities, well, then you go down for an inspection one night, a water pipe bursts, the brick floor dissolves, and you get sucked into a hole and fully submerged

Naturally, students are forbidden from entering, outside of a sanctioned tour once a year. One time, a group of four were caught in the tunnels taking pictures and drinking beer. Police initially suspected they were planning some heist (seriously), but when they realized the kids were just having fun, they went easy on them. The penalty was only 30 days in jail

The Lost Observatory

It may sound strange that a university can forget where it dug industrial-size tunnels, after such a fairly short length of time, but that’s quite normal. Consider this photo, of Michigan State University from around 1888:

Michigan State University observatory

Michigan State University

This was a weekly meeting of the Boater Hat Appreciation Society.

That’s a photo of an observatory that the college used to have. It was built by a professor named Rolla Carpenter, who had an uncanny knack for carpentry, and it cost the 19th-century equivalent of $14,000, a very reasonable sum. But by the 21st century, the observatory was long gone. Where exactly had it been located? No one knew. Also, no one knew when it had been destroyed, or why. 

Then, this past summer, a couple of workers were sticking hammock poles into the ground over in the east side of campus, presumably so they could set up a comfortable napping spot, when they hit something solid. They informed a professor named Stacey Camp, who had an uncanny knack for camping and who also directs the school’s archaeology program. They had stumbled on the foundations of the lost observatory, she concluded. 

MSU is now going to further excavate the site, in hopes that the observatory contains one or more pieces of Eden, ancient relics of technology left by the time travelers who we all know seeded Earth with life. 

The Rocky Caves

Limestone mines are good for a whole lot of stuff once you’re done mining for limestone. You can store decades of government records, run computer servers, pipe in trillions of cubic feet of gas or just plop in a bunch of cheese. Park University in Kansas City started mining its own limestone in 1981 (kind of a weird direction to take, a hundred years into the college’s operation), and then they found themselves with hundreds of thousands of square feet of new usable space. 

Park University underground

Elizabeth Hansen 

But student rooms are still 100-square-feet each, sorry.

Unlike ancient steam tunnels, caves are comfortable places to hang out, air conditioned in the summer and naturally warm in the winter. The university leases out a chunk of the space for commercial storage. For space they manage themselves, they ran a library out of there, then when that seemed too normal, they moved the library elsewhere and put their nursing program in its place. Now, they have a simulation lab down there, so students can carry fake patients in gurneys in a mock hospital environment. It’s a perfect replication of what real hospital life is like, assuming we’ll move all hospitals below ground because the surface world is lost.

The Hidden Slaves

Many colleges had ties to slavery, whether it’s in the form of buildings that slaves constructed or an endowment that was originally created by the university itself auctioning off hundreds of slaves. For the University of Alabama, the connection was especially awkward. They had a couple slaves buried on-campus. Jack Rudolph and “Boysey” Brown were buried next to the biology building, and no one acknowledged this.

Finally, after some protest, the university did officially acknowledge the contents of this cemetery in 2004 and apologized for the school’s past. As one law professor put it, “Our faculty owned humans; the University regulations required that the faculty were the only people who could discipline slaves, so on occasion the faculty beat slaves.”

The plaque on the site uses language that describes slavery in slightly less explicit terms. “This plaque,” it says, “honors those whose labor and legacy of perseverance helped to build the University of Alabama community since its founding.” That’s certainly one way to put it. 

Slave cemetery plaque

University of Alabama

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