As students sit perched in Mitchell Memorial Library, staring intently at laptops and munching on Einstein's Bagels, it is safe to say the secret "Dragon Room" underneath their feet is the farthest thing from their minds. The Dragon Room seems more like something J.K. Rowling would have scribbled onto the notebook on her bedside table rather than an actual site on campus. After all, this is Mississippi State University, not Hogwarts.
For a select group of individuals, the Dragon Room and the tunnels surrounding it are more than mere fantasy. This is a unique demographic, composed of adventurous students, campus police, facility managers, campus workers and the dean of students.
Students who were interviewed for this article preferred to remain anonymous, and therefore are identified by a single initial.
C., a student at MSU, is one of the brave few who has crawled through the tunnels and made it to the infamous dragon room. C. said when he went several years ago, it was much easier than it would be for anyone attempting now.
"I will say, it was about six years ago when this started and since then, police have basically shut off all entrances to the underground tunnel systems because people have been hurt going down there," C. said.
C.'s interest in the underground system was sparked, in part, by his brother who ventured down a few years earlier. The dragon mural is the artwork of C.'s brother's friend, who also created a map of the tunnel system which became the guide for C. and his friends when they decided to see the room for themselves their freshmen year. He said it was a bit more work than some of them expected.
"Once you get in, you have to climb down a very small shaft to get down to the bottom. Then, you have to crawl on your hands and knees for about a hundred feet. That was probably the hardest part, it was very snug. Once you get past that, you get into this huge, long tunnel system, and that's where it gets easier," C. said.
University Architect Tim Muzzi explained some of these tunnels were originally part of a steam system, but they are now abandoned.
"These tunnels ran under the streets and Drill Field to the old buildings and provided steam to the buildings for heating," Muzzi said.
To C., conquering the tunnels was a freshmen year initiation of sorts and a way to get to know campus his first year.
"For sophomores, seniors and juniors, the Dragon Room honestly is probably too much work, but for freshmen coming into college, wanting to make themselves known, wanting to find something that he or she connects to, this is for them. It was fascinating to go on that journey and find the massive dragon painting and find all these names on the wall of people who had come there before," C. said.
O., one of the students in the group, had also heard about the underground legend before enrolling as a student. In fact, the knowledge of this MSU mystery is what led her to make a college decision.
"I think it was my senior year of high school when I was doing a university tour. My roadrunner told me a bunch of stories about the things that she and her friends had done. I was a little unsure if I wanted to go to MSU or not, and then she started telling me about these secret tunnels. After that, I was completely sold," O. said.
O. and C. both said they were not fearful of being caught, although other members of their group were more apprehensive.
To get to the famous Dragon Room, one first has to crawl through drainage pipes. O. explained this was the one part of the experience that made her uncomfortable.
"The only time I got nervous was when I realized none of us had phone service at all. So, if something were to happen, that could have potentially been bad. I also felt a little claustrophobic when we had to army crawl through the drainage pipe to get to the tunnel," O. said.
O. also holds this memory as one of her favorites from her first year at MSU; however, she said it did not warrant a return.
"I had imagined this really big room with a super impressive dragon painted on it, but when we got there it was very small. It was about 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide. There was a huge drainpipe on the wall, with water rushing down. It was very cool, and we all decided it was worth it, but we would never do it again," O. said.
For students and storytellers, these tunnels provide delight and adventure; however, according to MSU Chief of Police Vance Rice, they pose a real threat.
He has been at MSU for five years and has known about the tunnels and the temptations they offer students from the beginning. He explained the tunnels are storm drains and facility connections and can be extremely dangerous, especially for students who are unfamiliar with them.
"I've heard numerous stories of highly expensive equipment being damaged unintentionally by people crawling around these tunnels. I've also heard of people dying because they get down there and get electrocuted, there is gas down there, there are varmints and there are also oxygen-deficient areas underground," Rice explained.
Rice said accessing the tunnels is a serious offense, and those caught will face legal punishment as well as a possible suspension or expulsion.
"To go into those tunnels, you're having to remove something or tamper in some way. As far as we know, there is not just an open area to go in. As such, it is trespassing to go in any of those tunnels. Anyone caught will be arrested for trespassing," Rice said.
Whether the idea of underground tunnels prompts you to shudder or pull out your flashlight, it undoubtedly adds mystery to Mississippi State's campus.