Union Station

Tunnel Vision

Tunnels should take you places.

A tunnel that’s particularly good at this is the stunner running under New Haven’s Union Station. Shiny curving walls form a shape like shoulders sloping up to meet a svelte neck, the walls reflecting lights embedded in thick tubular handrails skirting the outer edges.

Breaks along the way lead to tracks carrying trains of travelers to and fro. From here, Shore Line East runs up the Connecticut coastline as far as New London; Metro-North’s regional service heads in the other direction, between New Haven and New York City; Amtrak’s Acela Express line goes much further in both directions, running between Boston and Washington, D.C., and connecting with other lines that cross the country.

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Tunnels should also have you covered.

They have roofs, after all. An easy-to-miss, tripartite tunnel under Edgewood Avenue, buried deep down in Edgewood Park where the street crosses the West River, sports three arched ceilings supported by great big concrete beams like giant’s ribs. The first set presides over a stretch of paved trail for running and biking and the like; the second spans the river, shallow this time of year; and the third stretches over a short dirt path covered by decaying leaves.

Whereas the Union Station tunnel is pretty in its sleek and shiny design, this one pulls beauty out of its brute strength, odd geometry and collision with nature. Railings, no doubt intended to keep people from falling into the river, present a paradox: the material used to make them is lowly concrete, weather-beaten at that, but the aesthetic is Roman and aristocratic. Surrounded by the worn arching beams, and with wild green flora peeking in from the tunnel’s mouths, you can almost convince yourself you’re in an ancient (or maybe future) ruin. Meanwhile, the whole mass of the thing crosses the river at an angle, slanting its structure and producing arresting visual layers as you peer across.

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Tunnels should get beneath the surface.

Tunnels pass under things—in some cases, secretive and important things. The two-lane, two-way Pitkin Tunnel—boxy and ribbed, like being inside a cement accordion—passes under city hall, the federal courthouse and the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building, where branches of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, among many others, go about their business. The tunnel, connecting the south side of Elm Street between Church and Orange to State Street just above Chapel, is used for transporting prisoners and witnesses, and probably many other sensitive activities as well.

A decade ago, Pitkin Tunnel was a reasonably common shortcut for drivers wanting to skip the light at the end of Elm. Since 2007 or so, drivers have had to try their luck getting past guard stations manned by U.S. Marshals, one at each end. In addition to the sensitive stuff, the tunnel seems to be used for routine activities like supply deliveries and trash pickup; during a chance drive-through, I spied loading bays shooting off the main tunnel and at least one dumpster.

Tunnels should go the distance.

It just doesn’t feel like a tunnel unless it’s longer than it is wide. Running through the base of West Rock, Wilbur Cross Parkway’s arched, twin-tube Heroes’ Tunnel easily passes muster at 1,200 feet long and 25 feet wide per tube—though it just barely makes the geographic cut: the New Haven boundary juts northward just in time to catch the western end of the passage, then cuts back down just past the other end. It’s New Haven’s longest publicly accessible tunnel and reportedly the only manmade one in the entire state that runs through a natural structure. The interior of the tunnel doesn’t offer much of interest save the lighting, which looks like a single strip of film stretched out against the ceiling, either yellow, orange or black depending on the state of the bulb.

On a recent afternoon, cars seemed to enter the tunnel slowly and leave it whizzing, like shots out of a cannon. Perhaps they were wary given the long shadow before them, then emboldened as the darkness began to lift.

That’s another thing about tunnels: you have to endure a little uncertainty to get to where you’re going, which feels all the better for it.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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