Down Underground


This old diagram of the steam pipes that ran through the dormitories dates back to when The Bishop’s School was an all-girls boarding school. The steam pipes still run through the same tunnels between the basements, connecting to the heating systems in each room.

Sofi Verma, Staff Writer

You may have heard rumors of catacombs existing underneath our campus passed down from older students, or perhaps from Mr. Jeremey Gercke’s ceramics class. While there are no underground cemeteries or passageways littered with decaying dead bodies under our campus, the “catacombs” do in fact exist. Although the truth about these tunnels may be underwhelming for the students that have their fantastical theories about them, the stories are an integral part of our campus’ history.  

From the moment the new sixth grade class steps into Mr. Gercke’s classroom, a mysterious door sparks their curiosity. ‘What lies behind the mystery door?’ they begin to think. “When I was in 6th grade in Mr. Gercke’s advisory, he told us that the door in the back of his classroom led to the catacombs,” William Cluskey (‘24) remembered. 

The speculation of tunnels under Bishop’s have been around for generations, and hasn’t always been rooted in Mr. Gercke’s stories. When alumna Andrea Marvin (‘93) was asked if she had heard about the tunnels when she was a student, she responded “An alumni friend of mine said that there were underground crawl spaces, like little tunnels, that students would sneak into in the 80s.” 

Associate Dean of Students Mr. Shane Walton (‘98), one of the friendliest faces on campus, had quite a bit to say about his class’s theories when he was a student. With a serious expression, he recalled, “When I was in school here, people said there were ghosts in the tunnels… I’ve actually had multiple paranormal experiences with ghosts here. After a dance, everyone had left and I was checking to see if everyone had gone. I was checking the hall across from the senior rec room and went inside and closed the door so no one else could come in. I walked down and I got to the end, near Mr. Assaf’s classroom, and I just heard a SLAM. A door opened and slammed. It was 11:30 at night and there was nobody here. I ran out and– nobody.” Following his encounter, he checked the security footage too. “There was nobody– nothing… ” Maybe there aren’t dead bodies, but according to Mr. Walton himself, “there are definitely ghosts in those tunnels.” 

Last year’s seniors (‘21) took this curiosity to another level. Tara Samimi (‘21) said, “I remember hearing the rumor that there were catacombs under the school very early on, maybe even middle school. Some people claimed they had been in them so I always believed that they existed.” Tara and a few other seniors discovered an entrance outside of Gilman Hall to the tunnels on the night of their senior prank. Tara claims she doesn’t know who found the tunnel, but she does remember people surrounding the entrance that some students had already opened.

  Lucas Buu-Hoan (‘21) was also among the students in the crowd. Lucas said “in the moment between the chaos of the senior prank, and the discovery of the catacombs, all those rumours and scary stories you hear throughout your Bishop’s career seem to come true, and you’re scared s***less.” Those who know Lucas know that he and his camera never leave each other’s sides, however, for the sake of documenting this moment, Tara stepped up and took Lucas’s camera down into the tunnel. “I did not go in very far at all because the crawl space was very small and dusty, but it was long enough that I couldn’t film where the end of the space was or where it led too,” Tara mentioned. 

The footage depicts a long narrow passageway, lined with pipes. After the short video clip ended, Lucas added, “What I’ve heard from the students who went down there is that apparently, you go down and it’s a long tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel there’s a bright light, and if you go past that there’s a huge room and there’s a maze of rooms and entryways and secret passageways.” Tristan Lichter (‘21) admitted he went down there too. “It was just kind of creepy and dirty,” he said.

Stories like these confirm the existence of these tunnels, but why do they exist in the first place? Director of Facilities Mr. Brian Williams (‘81)  shed some light on the architectural history of the tunnels. In short, “They’re basically tunnels to run pipes: sewer lines, water lines, and steam pipes for the radiators.” Irving Gill was the very famous architect who designed Gilman, Bentham, and Scripps. Mr. Williams commented, “He had some very interesting design requirements, such as that all of the buildings had sand in the concrete from La Jolla Shores.” Because the building was made out of concrete, “the only way to get the utilities to where they had to go was underground.”

The tunnels run underneath Gilman, Bentham, and Scripps Halls, and connect the basements beneath these older parts of campus. While all the utility tunnels don’t expand further than our campus, there is a storm drain that runs off campus. “There’s one storm drain entrance over by the pool and if you lift that up you’d have to go about 25 feet deep and it runs out into the ocean,” Mr. Williams added. 

History teacher Mr. John Nagler recalls seeing a mention of this storm drain in one of his copies of “The Surfer’s Journal” publication. He pulled up a two-page spread of a secluded surf spot captioned, “At La Jolla’s Bishop’s High School, you will find a manhole cover in the corner of the yard just beyond the swimming pool. If you lift the lid and scramble down the rungs, you’ll find yourself in a storm drain. Follow said drain 270 yards under Pearl Street, and you’ll reemerge into the light at the precise paddle-out spot for this wave.” 

“We only go into the tunnels for maintenance reasons because it’s not safe,” Mr. Williams said. “If the steam pipes are on, they have scalding hot water in them and they are very fragile because they’re very old… and,” Mr. Williams added, “There’s a lot of rat poop.” He confirmed the tunnels are small crawl spaces and had never been in them personally, but mentioned he often goes down into the basements. “There was another story that Picasso’s granddaughter went here, and at one point he gave a painting to the school. There are stacks of old stuff in the basements, so every time I look at the stacks I wonder if I might find the Picasso.”