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What’s in that tunnel under downtown Ayer? Only memories


AYER — The abandoned subway tunnel under the railroad station spent nearly half its life in darkness. But when light was cast into the eerie hollow Oct, 3, an obscure piece of town history revealed itself.

Spurred on by curious Ayer Public Access Channel producer Dennis Mcgillicuddy, a four-man team of local officials and film crew ventured into the south-side entrance of the 150-foot-long artifact.

Mcgillicuddy, along with APAC cameraman David Melpignano, water department technician Rick Linde, and Director of Economic and Community Development Alan Manoian, descended the steel ladder down to the catacomb.

The old walls are lined with turn-of-the-century ceramic tiles, the floor is of rotted timbers, and the air is acrid of staleness and damp. The nostalgia it embodies outweighs its unsavory condition.

“I have often thought about this place,” he said. “Occassionally I would bring it up at town meetings but had no real plans for it.”

He still has no plans for restoration or return to function but is fascinated by the tunnel’s role in history. He points out the foundation of what used to be the stairway hut on the western edge near the town hall. That end is bricked over.

The subway’s usefulness is questionable, especially given the cost that Manoian estimates it will take to resurrect it, even as an attraction.

But whatever is to become of the semi-sealed chamber is a matter for the MBTA to decide, not for Ayer. The manhole entrance is within the fenced-in perimeter of MBTA-owned property, as is the entire subterrainean tract, and is off-limits to everyone. Only Linde has the key and he periodically visits the chamber to inspect the water main line that now travels along the eastern edge.

As the MBTA begins a modest upgrade to Ayer station, which includes for now a tall fence designed to keep people and eyeballs away from the neglected debris field that is unsafe and unsightly, they have made no plans for the old tunnel aside from keeping it hidden. It’s obsolescence will be its undoing.

Built in 1906 as a pedestrian passage under the once-vibrant train tracks, “the subway,” as it is referred to by old-timers, once played a vital role in the town’s heyday from World War I through the mid-’70s. The walls still bear graffiti from the era of its closure. It is clear that lovers, then as now, advertise their connections in spray paint, and that vulgar insults have barely evolved in 45 years.

The urban archaeology has on one level preserved the spirit of yesteryear while at once exposing the forward leaps in engineering. The old wooden floor, which today would be of concrete and steel, now lays like battlefield debris in the muddy substructure.

he entrances, adjacent to the town hall on one end and near the Grove Street church on the other, had been bolted shut since 1975. Only the church side is accessible, and that involves a considerable chore of removing doubled manhole covers before descending a slippery steel ladder. Ten feet below is muck and stench.

The dirt floor now deadens the once vibrant echoes as Manoian narrates his journey. “The subway was built to allow people to cross the tracks without the danger of getting hit by a train.” It is that same argument that the MBTA is now using to keep trespassers away.

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