Metro

Notes from underground: A journey through an abandoned subway tunnel

Above ground, it was just another day in Boston, circa 2018, as office workers hurried into Dunkin’ Donuts and lined up outside a food truck slinging Asian noodle soups and spicy beef sandwiches on City Hall Plaza.

But just 25 feet below the plaza, it looked a lot like 1963, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House and the Beach Boys ruled the pop charts with a hot new single called “Surfin’ USA.”

There, like an underground time capsule, sits an abandoned subway tunnel, remarkably well preserved from the last time trains rumbled through it.

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Opened in 1898, the tunnel was once part of America’s first subway line, connecting Scollay Square Station, which is now Government Center, to Adams Square Station, on the edge of City Hall.

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On Monday, city officials opened the tunnel for the first time since it closed in 1963, giving 100 Boston residents the opportunity to explore a musty subterranean relic.

With its vaulted brick ceiling, conical metal light fixtures, and peeling white paint, the tunnel looks much like it did when it served as an essential link for commuters heading north from Boston’s red-light district to Haymarket, said Joe Bagley, the city archeologist.

“More or less, it’s been left alone for 60 years,” he said. “It’s held up really well for its time.”

Bagley pointed out that the outlines of old wooden railroad ties are still visible in the dirt and a rusty metal sign on the tunnel wall indicates that a train might be coming through at any moment.

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“Caution,” it reads, “Keep Back of White Line on Platform,” though the white line and the platform it refers to are long gone.

“Amazing,” exclaimed Lynn Wilcott, an administrative assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital, as she marveled at the sign on the wall. “It’s so fun to see the underbelly of your city.”

Free tickets to the tunnel tour were made available last week to celebrate Preservation Month and were scooped up in about 27 minutes, Bagley said. The link to reserve tickets has since been clicked on more than 12,000 times, he said.

“As viral as preservation can go, it went viral,” Bagley said.

But fear not, urban spelunkers and cavern connoisseurs: Bagley said the city hopes to offer more tours, perhaps in October, to commemorate Massachusetts Archaeology Month.

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Monday’s tour drew history buffs, rail fans, and others eager to see a railway that first carried Bostonians below streets jammed with rattling trolley cars and zigzagging horse-drawn carriages.

In groups of 20, members of the public were led through a gray metal door in a City Hall garage and into the tunnel, which lit up with the flashes of cellphone cameras and echoed with the rumble of the occasional passing Green Line train.

Megan Sheehan, a graduate student in historical archeology, said she was thrilled.

“You never know in the future when something like this might disappear or get turned into a coffee shop,” she said. “We’d lose this little bit of Boston history.”

Tom Revay, a tour guide at Boston By Foot, said he was the third person to score a ticket on the city’s Facebook page.

“I’ve always wanted to see some of these abandoned tunnels,” he said. “It brings me back to that old-time engineering like you don’t see anymore. Plus, just the fact that we’re in here, some place that the public doesn’t ordinarily go — there’s something exciting about that.”

Erik Scheier, a project manager for the MBTA, who was on the tour, said he thought the T, which has been beset by mechanical problems, rush-hour delays, and packed trains, should follow the city of Boston’s lead and open up some of its abandoned subway tunnels to the public.

“It’s good PR,” he said, “and we need all the help we can get.”

City archaeologist Joseph Bagley ducked as he passed through a door in the abandoned subway tunnel.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
City archaeologist Joseph Bagley ducked as he passed through a door in the abandoned subway tunnel.
An officer shined his light inside the abandoned tunnel.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
An officer shined his light inside the abandoned tunnel.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.