1999 Photo of the Tunnel from 2L (Len Plant) as the walk begins toward the Main Plant

THE BACK ROAD (About the AO Tunnel)

by Joe Capillo

From Southbridge Evening News
Monday, May 4, 1998

 Over the years, hundreds of thousands have walked its darken underground paths across the Quinebaug River.

The AO service tunnel was a Wells family engineering marvel but after 80 years of existence it will no longer be in use.

Franklin Realty Advisors, leasing agent for the Southbridge Business Center, today closed the tunnel to workers and tenants, mainly for safety and security reasons. The tunnel connects the main plant building at 14 Mechanic Street to buildings across the river.Franklin is supervising proposed extensive renovations for the U.S. Department of Defense finance and accounting center, to be located in the main plant building. Strict security will be needed for both the DOD office and for the science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), according to John Soursourian, Franklin spokesman. SAIC is the company setting up the DOD training programs.

Soursourian stated, “In none of the business center leases does anyone have an express permission to use the tunnel for pedestrian access. The main plant is nearly empty but when the DOD comes in, we will need to secure the plant. We just can’t have people walking in and out,” Soursourian stated.

He added, “People have walked through the tunnel for years, through the main building to go to lunch and there have been some thefts in the main plant in the past. The tunnels were never designed for people to walk through, they never were safe to walk through. No one except craftsmen and mechanics should have been in there. I guess when AO was here, they felt that it was okay for company workers to go back and fourth.”

Soursourian said the DOD project will consume all of the existing plant “and we want them to feel secure.”

“They will have people who will work longer hours than conventional. So we looked at what’s the best way to maintain security in the building. We felt it was the right thing to be done - to close the tunnel.”

He said people can use an existing overhead pedestrian walk bridge to get from one side of the river to the main plant area. They’ll be able to go through the main plant at a very narrow secured point.

Designed for Utilities

The tunnel, estimated 10 to 12 feet wide in some sections, is close to a mile long, connecting underground to Aearo Corp. (once AO Building 16), Casedale, Lensdale and the Powerhouse.

It was built sometime around 1910 and was originally designed to carry utility lines and heating ducts underground to the various buildings. It was also once used as a transport system for merchandise and supplies and featured a pneumatic air tube system which allowed written messages to be shuttled to various offices across the river.

At one time, in the 1940s, the tunnel was used as a manufacturing area for zyl frame polishing.

Old-timers tell some interesting stories about life inside the dimly-lit passageways. It was a place to sneak a smoke or to take a cat nap or a pinch of snuff. Several retired workers tell stories about the tunnel being used as a rendezvous for romancing sweethearts.

The doors to the tunnel are now sealed shut but it won’t dim the memories of the army of AO workers who trooped back and forth during the optical giant’s heydays.

The “other” Tunnel

The so-called “other” AO tunnel has been much talked about for years but always ends up as one of the town’s best unexplained mysteries. Did the A.B. Wells tunnel, which ran from his home on Main Street near Dresser Park to the main plant on Mechanic, really exist?

The answer to this question is a definite “Yes.”

But the answer to other queries, such as was the Wells tunnel used to shuttle payroll cash from his home to the plant or used by the family patriarch to walk to work in inclement weather, are certainly not true.

The mile-long underground tunnel was built in the 1920s for the sole purpose of housing steam and power lines, which were used to heat and light the Wells family home (now known as The Wells office building.)

The energy was created in the AO powerhouse and pumped across Mechanic Street and through tubes and pipes to the family home.

Years ago, when the AO was sold to Warner-Lambert Company, the tunnel was bricked off at both ends.

Consensus by former workers is that the general location was under the AO’s main door on Mechanic Street. It followed a path across Mechanic, paralleling the former Lens Street (where the new police department is located) and then across Crystal Street north to the Wells home.

In recent years, some AO people have searched for the exact location of the tunnel entrance but to no avail.

The tunnel, say old-timers, was about four feet wide and about six feet high, large enough for a person to walk through. It contained a number of tubes and pipes carrying utility lines and steam heat.

Several retired workers said they remember, as children, playing in Dresser Park and crawling down into the tunnel from a ground-level door.

So, while we know the Wells tunnel did exist, its exact location will probably always be a mystery.

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