You may or may not be aware that Gustave Eiffel used his iconic Eiffel Tower as a personal start-up lab for scientific innovation (hint: you probably heard it from us). But did you know that there’s also a “secret” military bunker still buried beneath, with an entrance near the south pillar?
The bunker — which was not originally created to withstand army bombardments — was constructed in 1909 for the military telecommunications that took place from the Eiffel Tower. The tower was designed as the grand entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle, but soon after, Eiffel was trying to find ways to save his eponymous project; after all, it was only meant to stay up for 20 years and received much criticism about its architectural aesthetic. So the engineer gave personal financial backing to army general and radio pioneer Gustave-Auguste Ferrié’s plan to build a wireless telegraphy station at the top of the tower.
The project was successful, as Eiffel and Ferrié worked closely together on the first tests of military radio broadcasting. Scientist Eugène Ducretet had previously established the first radio link in Morse code connecting the Eiffel Tower to the Pantheon. But the local Parisians weren’t too happy with soldiers tramping around their bucolic Champ de Mars, so in 1909 a permanent bunker was build to house the radio operators. In 1913, the Paris Observatory, a research institute, transmitted wireless signals to the United States Naval Observatory in Arlington, Virginia, with the goal of measuring the difference in longitude between the French and American capitals.
During World War I, its bunker took on an even more important role as a potential escape route with a complex underground network and secret tunnels. The Iron Lady’s communication infrastructure proved especially useful when French forces jammed German communications, a significant factor in winning the First Battle of the Marne. The French military were also able to decrypt enemy messages; notably, an intercepted communiqué between Germany and Spain led to the arrest of exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari.
After the war, the broadcasting took on a more entertaining purpose, with the launch of Radio Tour Eiffel in 1921 on the tower’s north pillar; it provided news, weather and concert programming. French actor Sacha Guitry (along with his father Lucien Guitry and wife, actress Yvonne Printemps) delivered some of the first civilian radio programs during the 1920s. Radio wasn’t the only form of communication: At one point, the Eiffel Tower was also a newsroom for the French newspaper Le Figaro and a post office was housed in the structure. Sadly, Radio Tour Eiffel was halted in 1940 with the German occupation, but broadcasts continued after the conflict, most notably the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
The tunnel remained a military secret for some 70 years and some mysteries of the bunker remain, including whether there is a tunnel stretching across the famed public gardens of the Champ de Mars to the French École militaire training facillities. Multiple FM radio and digital television channels (a TV antenna was first installed in 1957) broadcast from the Eiffel Tower to this day.
Off-the-beaten path visits of the Eiffel Tower’s underground space have been possible in recent years but have recently been discontinued. Take a staircase down 4 or 5 meters and you find yourself in a small, makeshift underground museum at the entrance of the old bunker, highlighting some of the iconic landmark’s lesser known history. But the truth is, the nucleus of the bunker hasn’t been seen by the public for some time and what remains would only disappoint visitors hoping to see a preserved wartime shelter.
It’s perhaps a missed opportunity for one of the world’s most visited landmarks, which now uses the demilitarized bunker for a much less exciting purpose – storage – primarily for the food venues inside of the Eiffel Tower. Decidedly more animated for intrepid visitors is the underground space that houses the original machine room which still controls the Tower’s six hydraulic elevators designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1889.
If you’re curious about the private visits to the Eiffel Tower’s engine room, don’t forget the MessyNessyChic Concierge can help you with all things off-beat during your stay in Paris. And in the meantime, jump in our time machine and head up to Mr. Eiffel’s Penthouse apartment.