Swarthmore’s Hidden Underbelly

In our adventures this week, darkness abounds,
both out in the cosmos and deep underground.
Tales of wonder, chance, and scandalous treachery
arise from these spaces of secret Swat lechery.

For decades, Swatties have speculated just what hidden wonders lie beneath the unassuming facades of Swarthmore’s campus buildings: Does Swarthmore really have nuclear fallout shelters on campus? If the president is passing through the area and bombs start dropping, does the secret service actually drive him to a secret bunker in the basement of McCabe? This week your intrepid marauders adventure into the deepest bowels of Swarthmore’s campus, and they inadvertently stumble upon little-known coincidences in presidential history along with a bitter, decades-long international controversy.

Our journey begins in outer space. Well, in Sproul Observatory, the home of a telescope that spent its lifetime viewing outer space. Built in 1963, the sub-basement of Sproul is a reinforced concrete structure located behind multiple locked doors and down a staircase from Sproul’s main basement level. The small room with bare concrete walls is filled with row upon row of nearly floor-to-ceiling metal filing cabinets containing over 55,000 astronomers’ photographic plates. Cold, stark, and musty, with long shadows stretching along the walls, this room reeks of a long-buried scandal of astronomical proportions.

Let us briefly mention William Cameron Sproul ‘91, who, in 1911, donated the funds for Sproul Observatory. At the time, Sproul was serving in the Pennsylvania State Senate. He would soon be elected Governor of Pennsylvania. He was in the running for the Republican nomination for President in 1920, but lost out to Warren G. Harding. He was then offered the Vice-Presidentship, but turned it down. If he hadn’t, we probably would have had our first and only Swattie in the Oval Office: Harding’s Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president after Harding died in 1923.

So Michael Dukakis ‘55 is not the closest we’ve gotten to a Swattie president. Though he didn’t know it at the time, the job could have been Sproul’s. Another amusing counter-factual: Wilson’s Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer ‘91 (of the infamous Palmer raids) was considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the same election, though he lost out to James Cox. If they had each won their party’s nomination, there could have been a Swattie vs. Swattie race for the White House.

But the Sproul observatory is famous for more than just political drama. It is also central to an intense, decades-long controversy between two Swarthmore astronomy professors. In 1937, the Dutch astronomer Peter Van de Kamp became a professor. He was known for his charismatic demeanor and his spirited conducting of the College orchestra. But his passion lay in the countless hours he spent in the Sproul observatory, exploring the darkest reaches of space. His expertise was astrometry, the “precise measurement of the positions of stars.” Professor Van de Kamp became famous—and eventually infamous—for his work with one star in particular: Barnard’s star, a red dwarf located six light years away from Earth.

Photo by Andrew Cheng.

In Van de Kamp’s era, there was no confirmed knowledge of planets outside our solar system. So in 1963, when Van de Kamp claimed to have discovered a planetary system orbiting Barnard’s star, the scientific community was in a frenzy of wonder and excitement. Van de Kamp had spent twenty-six years investigating thousands of photographic plate exposures on Sproul’s 24-inch refracting telescope. During this time he noted and tracked a “small perturbation, known as a ‘wobble,’ in the star’s path. Such a deviation could be caused by the gravitational pull of one or more planets orbiting around the star.”

In 1969, Van de Kamp chose the young German astronomer Wulff Heintz as his successor in the field of astrometry at Swarthmore, and the two men quickly established a close friendship. In 1970 Heintz tried to replicate Van de Kamp’s research on Barnard’s Star. But alas, he could not! Heintz suspected either a glitch in Van de Kamp’s mathematical formulas or a malfunction of the telescopic equipment, and in 1976 he began publishing a series of papers that called Van de Kamp’s entire project into question. Van de Kamp stood by his methods, but when other research facilities also failed to replicate Van de Kamp’s findings, the formerly earth-shattering discovery was effectively debunked. The two astronomers became estranged over this debate, and despite Van de Kamp’s prodigious (and well-deserved) reputation in the field, this scandal haunted him for the rest of his life.

Stumbling upon the life’s work of Cold War-era scientists in this airless room is eerie. Though their work was rendered essentially irrelevant by the Hubble Telescope, the photographic evidence of Van de Kamp and Heintz’s research remains – as does the lingering aura of friendship spurned.

We emerge from the stale air of Sproul only to be thrust into another subterranean locale: the basement of the basement of Papazian Hall. Papazian is the only academic building that wasn’t built by the college. It was formerly known as the Bartol Research Foundation building. Bartol came to campus in 1927 as part of an effort by President Frank Aydelotte to break down the borders between professional research and academia. However, shortly after World War II, the campus learned that Bartol had been involved with atomic research for several decades, and in 1978 the College decided not to renew Bartol’s lease on the building.

Facilities director Stu Hain had a suspicion that Papazian’s sub-basement may be radiation-secured, and as we descend ever further below ground, we sense that his hunch may be correct. Papazian’s terraced front stairs lie directly above us, and we can’t help but suspect that they are concealing undisclosed layers of fallout protection. We meander through the twisted corridor beneath Papazian’s grounds, encountering locked doors with menacing signs and dusty, long-forgotten experimental constructs.

At the end of the passage, we turn a corner and ascend a staircase that deposits us in front of a solid steel door, the last barrier between ourselves and the crisp autumn air outside. When we open the door, light comes pouring in and the dried leaves at the base of the storm cellar entrance greet us with lively dance. Next stop: McCabe!

McCabe’s most accessible sub-basement holds the files of the Friends Historical Library, including the College Archives that are so useful when writing columns like this one. The records of countless Quaker meetings across America, dating back to the 17th century, are held in a fireproof cage, while records of Swarthmore alumni, faculty, and student life are kept next door. Garnet banners for Alumni Weekend, editions of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and the death mask of Elias Hicks (founder of Hicksite Quakerism) make their home two levels below the circulation desk.

From the Friends Library, a crawlspace littered with debris leads straight through McCabe’s underbelly to a series of electrical rooms and air conditioning units in its southeast sub-basement. These spaces lack the aura of mystery and concealed history that we’ve otherwise encountered. Here, the whirring of machines and the buzz of electricity has a pulsating vitality that stands in sharp contrast to the deserted and forgotten nature of the Sproul and Papazian hideaways.

There’s a rumor floating around campus alleging that if the president or some important dignitary is in the Swarthmore area during a bomb threat, they are taken to McCabe sub-basement as the safest bomb shelter nearby. This is most definitely nothing but a rumor – but still, in the event of a nuclear fallout or zombie apocalypse, Sproul, Papazian, and McCabe alike should top your list of Swarthmore sanctuaries!

Happy marauding!

— Padfoot and Prongs

Photos by Steve Dean.