Many residents have wondered about the mysterious tunnels that run underneath Fullerton College and Fullerton Union High School. Water-proofed and located roughly eight feet below ground-level, the maze-like maintenance tunnels wander for more than two miles and wind their way under Lemon Street, then toward East Chapman Avenue, connecting to the basements of the buildings on both sides of the Fullerton College Quad, according to the original layout plans. With very little information available about these vast concrete passageways, I decided to dig up historical documents at the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room and the Fullerton College Library archives to help demystify the history behind the tunnels, which many local residents and students believe to be haunted.
The original tunnel system was started at the high school campus during its early years. In 1922, a local contractor named Al Stovall signed a contract with Fullerton Union High School “to excavate for the boiler room and tunnel for 80 cents per cubic yard,” according to an article published when FUHS celebrated its 100th birthday. In 1934, the site on the northeast side of Chapman and Lemon was bought for the junior college, and the maintenance tunnels were “extended under Lemon and under the college buildings.” Debora Richey from Fullerton Heritage said via email, “Using PWA and WPA funds, starting in 1935, architect Harry K. Vaughn was charged with building service tunnels for plant workmen from a powerhouse east of Lemon Street to the various buildings on the college site.”
Richey explained that the service tunnels (approximately 2,137 feet of catacombs) provided protection and accessibility for utility services, such as steam lines; hot and cold water mains; gas, air, electrical, and sewage lines; and conduits for the school’s public address system and telephone wires. The total cost of the project was $37,612, of which the Federal government paid $25,214. She said that during World War II, administrators planned to use the tunnels during air raids, and during the 1950s, they were a civil defense site used to store food, water, and other emergency supplies. Interestingly, old photographs indicate that packages of survival biscuits (also known as saltine crackers) and Defense Department containers for storing water were left down in the tunnels for years in preparation for a disastrous event. From the pictures, it looks like there was enough pre-packaged food for quite a number of shelter occupants.
The fear of being bombed concerned many at the time, so the tunnels underneath the two schools were designed to be used as bomb shelters, where rations, cots, blankets, and first aid supplies were housed in case they needed to be used. The supplies stayed down in the tunnels until 1983 when the county removed them, according to a feature article written by Debbi Dickinson in an issue of The Hornet from 1985.
I learned from reading documents kindly provided by Cheri Pape, archivist at the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room, that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the junior college had few buildings and no cafeteria, so when it rained, the students were allowed to walk through the tunnels under Lemon to buy lunch at the high school.
There were also some accounts from graduates at the time who remembered them as the “horror tunnels” because apparently some students used to play pranks on each other down there. For example, during one of the high school’s carnivals, students borrowed a skeleton from the biology department and hung it in a dimly lit area to scare people. There was also a time when “they would also lead other students through the main tunnel to a place where there was a 1-foot drop,” so that when people stepped on the floor where they thought there was space, they would fall down the hole and land on a mattress, according to an article from 1993 by Jackie Brown in the Local History Room.
There were many entrances to the tunnels that were relatively hidden. Interestingly, one article from the early nineties reports that former Councilman Chris Norby, who was a 1968 graduate from Fullerton High School and student body president his senior year, said that he “had been through the tunnels several times, but didn’t think the majority of students had,” and that “sometimes, he would squeeze under the gate that cut off access under Lemon.”
Over time, the underground passageways became a concern, and there were structural problems on small sections of the tunnel network, so they were closed to the public. During later renovation projects, some of the tunnels and their entrances were filled in with concrete, and wiring and plumbing were re-routed. For years, the tunnels have also helped a number of maintenance workers easily maintain utilities, and have become part of the lore of both the high school and community college.
Categories: Local News