Tunnels carve path into school’s past

When a school’s history dates back to 1869, there’s bound to be some legend and lore surrounding it.  But none may be more alluring to Lincoln students than the stories about “the tunnels” – an urban legend at LHS for decades.

Many seniors from years past have told stories about their experiences involving the tunnels that reportedly run under the school.  But the stories have seemed part myth, part hearsay.

But no longer.

Recently, an investigation by the Cardinal Times revealed that not only do the tunnels  exist, but they have been the source of a lot of stories, mischief and some controversy over the years.

The tunnels are as old as the school building itself, which was completed in 1953. Architects had to create a system for pipes, ventilation and access points for utilities around the school. The solution was to build a immense network of tunnels beneath the school. These elaborate tunnels connect all parts of the school, from 18th to 14th Avenue.

For decades, the access tunnels were used for maintenance. But for almost as long, many students, particularly seniors, have been sneaking down into them to engrave their name into Lincoln’s history.

This was still a tradition until recent years, when PPS was notified of students accessing the tunnels. The district took immediate action to stop it. The tunnels are filled with asbestos and lead, making them  a dangerous place.

When asked for permission to enter the tunnels, principal Peyton Chapman told two reporters for the Times: “I like my job and I don’t know anyone here who’s planning on quitting soon.”

Many Lincoln students have heard the stories of the Shanghai tunnels that lie under older parts  of downtown Portland near the Willamette River and some believe Lincoln’s tunnels are part of that system. The tunnels under LHS, however, have no connection with the passages that were used decades ago to kidnap drunk sailors.

“I think, given the Shanghai tunnels being such a big part of our city’s history, any tunnel in Portland gets a little more fisiche,” said Daniel Freimark, a 2008 Lincoln alum.

Even though Lincoln’s tunnels are not connected to the Shanghai tunnels, it is no wonder so many students for decades have been sneaking into them . Along with legends and myths connected to the tunnels, there is a undeniable curiosity that comes with it.

Long before the construction of the current Lincoln building in 1953, Tanner Creek ran through the blocks on which the school is now built. The creek wound through a lot of downtown Portland – resulting in 6-foot wide pipes being made in order to allow the creek to flow beneath the city. These pipes and the creek still exist, although they’re separate from the tunnels that Lincoln students talk about today.

“The tunnels were only built for accessing old, outdated ventilation systems,” Chapman says. “Now things are so automated that you can go to a main boiler and flip switches. Years ago, you had to actually go and repair things. It was right after World War II, so people thought you could hide down there during a nuclear bomb, but it’s not set up that way. There’s no natural light or ventilation.”

Lincoln alumna Paige Claire Mesher, Class of 2013, went into the tunnels. She recalls that “There’s nothing down there. A lot of people have this thought that it’s this cool place only some know about. All it looks like is spray painted names on walls.

“It wasn’t a select group of people who were allowed to go down there, but people who had a free period and knew the right person who had the key. I believe only seniors have gone down there – my dad did it when he went to Lincoln.”

Today, the school district has made it very clear that students should not be allowed in the tunnels under any circumstance.

“I know there’s a sign that says ‘Caution, no students or staff beyond this point,’” says Chapman. “I know there’s never been permission from our administration or any vice-principals, either.”

Of course, Lincoln students are notorious for using their resources to gain access to the tunnels; Chapman has only been down few times in her 10 years as principal.

However, there was one special occasion when access was granted was for a student-made video presented during an assembly that showed the film makers inside the tunnels.

“Teachers took students down there and video taped it, and it was not for professional reasons,” said Chapman.

The video was made as a comedy tribute to long-time Lincoln teacher David Bailey, portraying him as a secret Democrat. The students wandered through the tunnels, joking that Bailey was keeping an office deep beneath Lincoln. It was shown in a May Fete assembly, playing with the idea that the legendary teacher has never given up his conservative political standpoint.

The administration was never aware of the video – not hearing or viewing it until it was shown in the assembly. This lead to a full investigation after its screening, eventually limiting the tradition of seniors entering the tunnel; still, many students have gone down since on their own.

Chapman never knew who let students into the tunnels, saying, “I can only imagine it was a campus monitor or a former coach.”

On a different occasion, Freimark said he and a few other students “used the tunnels for a fundraising video in 2004. You would get in trouble if you went down there without special permission,” he said.

Until nearly 40 years ago, the doors to the tunnels didn’t even have locks. That changed when those planning the senior prank for the class of 79’ decided to use the tunnels as an entrance to the school after hours.

According to Page Mesher, Paige Claire Mesher’s father, the students behind the prank apparently had fun  intentions, planning only to rearrange some desks and furniture around the school. Four students used duct tape on the tunnel doors to prevent the doors from fully locking, although they would appear as if they were.

“Before the weekend, the four students went into the tunnels and found an out through a manhole cover near 14th and Taylor Street,” said Page Mesher, who was attending Lincoln at the time. They loosened the manhole cover from underground, so that, two days later, they could enter through the sewer system and trace their way back [into the school].

“The students came up in the tunnel. They walked through a door and they were in the school. In the principal’s office, they were changing out his desk and screwing around. They didn’t realize Lincoln had a motion detector system, which they had activated,” said Mesher.

“All the sudden, they saw flashlights out on the grass with the police running through the doors. The students exited the school towards Salmon Street. Three of the four guys were caught. Two guys got caught right away while running, one guy got caught hiding under a car.” he said.

In the end, the students weren’t allowed to walk in commencement, he said.

“The three students that were caught never gave up the name of the fourth kid. They were taken down to the police station and the fourth one got away. They never divulged from the story – they’ve kept the secret of the other kid for thirty plus years. To this day, there’s been rumors – but the kid was never caught and his name has never been known to the Lincoln staff,” Mesher recalled.

This incident led to the locking of the doors, which still remain locked today, but the allure of the tunnels remains just as strong.

Editor’s Note: While this story contains references to entering the tunnels, entrance is prohibited. Photos were taken from the entrance or by custodians. Please do not attempt to enter the tunnels.