Men, it’s time to come clean about something: we all want to dig tunnels.
The news out of New York last week about a series of secret (and probably illegal) tunnels under the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Brooklyn is bizarre, but it shouldn’t be too surprising: guys love digging tunnels.
Sometimes they have a good reason for it. We don’t know the exact justification these young men will give for building the secret passage, but it fits into a long tradition of dudes digging tunnels when they really didn’t have to. Think about a heavy snowfall when you were a kid, like the one we had yesterday: first you build a snow fort, then the tunnel under it. Did it collapse on you or your friends as the snow melted? Sure it did, but you lived, right?
Most men don’t have the means to build a proper tunnel as adults, and the wisdom gained since boyhood tends to instill a healthy fear of being crushed by dirt and rock. But history is full of tales of eccentric rich men who were obsessed with building tunnels.
William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the 5th Duke of Portland, was known as a rich recluse. What did he do while hiding away from society? Build tunnels. The duke built six miles of tunnels underneath his Nottinghamshire estate in the nineteenth century. Being a duke, he did not dig the holes himself, but hired an army of laborers to do it. Why? No reason. He just liked tunnels (and had an absurd amount of money).
Joseph Williamson, a tobacco merchant, was — like Portland — an eccentric, rich nineteenth-century Englishman who spent loads of his own money to pay men to dig tunnels for him. Only he did it in the middle of a bustling commercial city, Liverpool. And again, no one is exactly sure why. Williamson was no recluse, but he kept his motives to himself. Some of the tunnels still survive and are a minor tourist attraction.
But it’s not just eccentric Englishmen. In America, men were also seized with tunnel mania. In the nation’s capital in the early twentieth century, Harrison Gray Dyar was an entomologist by day, tunnel-builder by night. When the tunnels were discovered in 1924, rumors ran wild about their purpose. But according to Dyar, it was just a harmless pastime. “Digging tunnels after work is my hobby,” he told reporters. “There’s nothing really mysterious about it.”
There are other examples — Wikipedia has a whole page on the subject of hobby tunneling and the discovery of one will occasionally make the news. Guys are making YouTubes about their tunnels. There’s a subreddit. It is a whole thing. Ever hear about an old house with an Underground Railroad tunnel? That was a tunnel guy who just happened to also hate slavery.
Let’s face it: guys love tunnels. Always have, always will. The story out of Brooklyn is the latest example, but it won’t be the last.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.