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The ‘Unfathomable’ Pursuit of Personal Tunneling


Why dig a tunnel? (Photo: Eugene Sergeev/shutterstock.com)

When Leanne Wijnsma digs a tunnel, it needs to be in a public place. She marks the spot where it will begin and the spot where it will end, and she begins. Normally, when she digs in Amsterdam, where she lives, she uses a small shovel. But when she travels to dig holes—she’s dug in Germany, Italy, Belgium and South Africa—and can’t bring her tools with her, she’ll buy a shovel there, and it’ll tell her something about the quality of the dirt.

“Every time, when I start digging, I’m super nervous,” she says. “Not one tunnel is the same, and you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Will something happen? Is the soil ok? Is it too hard or too soft? Will I find something crazy?”

Wijnsma, a designer and artist, dug her first hole after she hit a block with another video project intended to explore freedom. Her tunnels are not long, nor are they very deep underground. She starts by digging around four to five feet into the ground and burrows maybe a dozen feet before emerging on the other end. “I was so much in my head, thinking, a lot of theory,” she says. “I just had the urge to dive into the soil and find something really basic.”

She thought she would dig one tunnel. She’s now worked on a total of 13.

There are practical reasons to dig a tunnel, like to reach a deposit of coal, or diamonds, or some other vein of precious material; to move people, maybe on subway trains, more efficiently than is possible above ground; to transport water or sewage long distances; to make it through a mountain or under a river; to reach your car through a pile of snow. Sometimes, there are reasons to dig a tunnel in secret—to hide drugs or guns or money, to smuggle yourself into a country where you’re not supposed to be, to smuggle yourself out of a place you’re trapped inside. (Or, according to one recent conspiracy theory, to take over the state of Texas from underneath a Walmart.) Humans have dug so many impressive tunnels that, last year, one paleobiologist argued that tunnels will be humanity’s lasting legacy on Earth: no other species has dug such extensive tunnels, of such large circumference, as we have. They could still be there tens of millions of years from now.

But sometimes people dig tunnels for more inscrutable reasons. There was the Toronto man whose tunnels scared the police. The Costa Rican whose tunnel system is bright and cheery. The Russian who tried to create a subway system by hand. The Armenian who had visions that guided his digging. The British “Mole Man” whose tunnels extended in all directions from the basement of his house. The Californian miner who dug a tunnel as a short cut (though no one else was sure what it was a short cut to). The D.C. entomologist who dug two sets of tunnels— one at the house where he lived with his first family, one where he lived with his second.

Like Wijnsma, these men had an urge to dig. But some of their tunnels extended far beyond the scale on which Winjsma is working: they reached multiple stories underneath the ground, or stretched half a mile long. Some of these men worked on their tunnels for almost two decades, using only simple tools to excavate, day after day, foot after foot, creating along with their physical labyrinths another puzzle: Why would a person want to—need to, even—dig a personal tunnel?

ESCAPE from Leanne Wijnsma on Vimeo.

There is a certain cool factor to digging a private tunnel. Just ask any kid who’s tried to dig one in the backyard. Technically, many backyard tunnels do not become actual tunnels, which should have an entrance and an exit or, at least, a destination; they are holes in the ground that aspire to be more. (My childhood tunnel was actually in my friend Amanda’s yard; we had big plans for our underground clubhouse, before we hit a root and then a rock, and eventually gave up—or maybe grew up.)

It’s easier to acquire a tunnel as an adult, especially as an adult who has enough money to hire a professional to build one. Henry T. Nicholas III, who made his money in computer chips, had secret tunnel built behind a wooden panel in his Laguna Hill mansions: it was made to look like stone, with “impression of skulls carved into niches, which were lit by candelabras,” Vanity Fair reported, and the contractors who built it claimed it was intended as a place for Nicholas to “indulge his appetite for illegal drugs and sex with prostitutes.” The staff of Playboy found Polaroids and a blueprint of tunnels that, apparently, led to the houses of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, and other movie stars. More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that secret tunnels are becoming more common as a feature of luxury mansions. Among preppers, there’s some debate about the safety and utility of installing escape tunnels from a house’s basement; it’s not a priority for everyone, but some people do opt in to the idea.

The most intriguing personal tunnels, though, are the ones dug by individuals. When earlier this year Toronto police found a tunnel more than 30 feet long and six and a half feet high, with electric lights and a sump pump, the theories of its origins ranged wide—maybe it was a terrorist group, planning to attack the nearby stadium? Maybe it was a drug lab? Eventually, the police announced that it was dug by two men for “personal reasons”—a mystery of its own.

It turned out that the tunnel belonged to Elton MacDonald. (The second man, a friend, had helped him build it.) He was 22 and had worked in construction. He had spent two years building it out as far as he had and used it as a retreat of sorts: he lived nearby, with his family. But even MacDonald couldn’t explain, exactly, what had kept him working on the tunnel. “Honestly, I loved it so much,” he told Macleans. “I don’t know why I loved it.”

Like MacDonald, some of the men who’ve dug extensive personal tunnels have professional skills that have aided them. Manuel Barrantes, whose Costa Rican tunnel system extends over 4,000 square feet, worked as a miner before he started digging, for instance.

Barrantes’ tunnels stand out in that they have a clear and practical purpose, namely that he intended to create an underground home for his family. His tunnels are decorated with carvings, of suns, faces, and characters including the Flintstones and, for a massive set of underground tunnels, are remarkably cheery. (The tunnels are now named Topolandia, and they’re open for tours.) In Russia, Leonid Murlyanchik’s tunnels also had a purpose: originally, he intended to visit a romantic prospect in a nearby town. But that was in 1984, and when he was warned away from the woman, he continued digging, about three feet a day, with the intention of creating a subterranean transportation system for his neighbors.

This is the strange thing about this diggers, though: even when they have a purpose, it’s hard to understand how it can justify the effort. Before he died, Murlyanchik would spend a day digging out the next three feet of his tunnel and then another three days shoring it up with bricks and sealing those walls. He kept at this for almost three decades.

And some of these tunnelers do not claim to have a practical purpose. In Armenia, Lyova Arakelyan started digging because in 1985  his wife asked him to put a potato cellar into their house. But once he started, he didn’t stop: he kept working on the system of tunnels underneath their house, until he died in 2008. He would sleep for only three or four hours and spent much of his time under the ground. He had, he said, visions of where the tunnels should go next, how they should progress through the earth. When he died, he had reached 70 feet beneath the house.

Visions aside, some other tunnels started similarly. Britain’s Mole Man started his project with the intention of creating a wine cellar. And Harrison G. Dyar, the D.C. entomologist, began digging his tunnels after he volunteered to loosen the earth of the family’s yard to prepare it for hollyhocks. For some reason, they just kept digging.


Lyova Arakelyan’s tunnels (Photo: Atlas user littleham)

Marc Epstein has been trying to understand, for more than a decade, why Dyar dug. An entomologist himself, he’s writing a biography of Dyar, and while it’s about much, much more than tunnels, this strange habit of his subject has been a persistent puzzle.

“I still don’t know how he did it,” Epstein says.  ”It’s almost unfathomable, the amount of energy it would take, and he was a frail guy. It still doesn’t add up, that’s what’s so fascinating.”

Dyar’s tunnels first came to light in 1924, when the alley behind his Dupont Circle house collapsed beneath the weight of a truck. The D.C. papers, like the Toronto papers would almost a century later, went wild speculating whether it was spies or smugglers who’d dug them. They were mysterious. Here’s what the Washington Post reported finding there:

“On the ceiling were pasted numerous copies of German newspapers dated during the summer of 1917 and 1918.  Dimly seen in the feeble rays of the electric torches, it was possible to discern in the newspaper articles frequent references to submarine activities then employed by the imperial government of Germany.  Cryptic signs and engravings in cipher defaced the papers to some extent.”

But soon Dyar fessed up, and achieved a certain degree of fame for his tunneling habit. In 1932, Modern Mechanix featured his second set of tunnels, which went 32 feet down into the ground and had three levels. He told the magazine that he dug them because it was “an appealing form of exercise to relieve the intense strain of his workday.”

“Yeah, he got exercise it, but that doesn’t quite explain it,” Epstein says. One persistent rumor has been that the tunnels connected his two houses, the one in Dupont Circle, where he lived with his first wife, and the one below the Mall, where he lived with his second. There was a certain scandal to this arrangement: his relationship with Wellesca Allen, his second wife, predated their marriage, and it seems that her children were his.  

It’s not true, Epstein says, that the tunnels connected the two houses. But he understands why people might want to think that. “It makes so much more sense that they would connect the houses,” he says. “It gives it a sense of purpose.”

Instead, it probably went something more like this. Dyar was an energetic guy, with a lot on his mind. He’d clash with other scientists—it was once rumored named an insect corpulentis after an overweight colleague—and his family life was a mess.* His mind, too, was overactive. In addition to his scientific work and his tunneling, he wrote science fiction stories, hundreds of them. Digging tunnels was, perhaps, mesmerizing, even meditative.


The Burro Schmidt tunnel (Photo: Kurtis2014/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

For Wijnsma, the Amsterdam artist, tunneling is about escape, from a society where everything is planned and structured, from her less physical work, sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

You kind of stop thinking,” she says, “There’s just the smell of soil; you get blisters on your hands, and your muscles are sore. You only have one goal, and that is extremely relaxing.”

Sometimes, she encounters obstacles. In Cape Town, there was a really huge stone. It was maybe 200 pounds, although maybe, in her memory, it’s gotten larger. It was heavy enough that she couldn’t lift it, and after an hour of trying to move it, she thought that maybe she would give up. She was sitting next to her hole, thinking, that, ok, she would go home, she would leave the tunnel unfinished. But then she got up. She went to the city, she bought a rope, and she came up with a system to pull that rock out.

“It was such a beautiful moment,” she says. “I think that is the whole point of the tunnels”—taking on whatever challenge the earth presents and getting past it.

ESCAPE 150429.011 White Hole from Leanne Wijnsma on Vimeo.

 *This paragraph has been updated to make clear that it was Dyar who was energetic and only a rumor that he named the species out of collegial spite.