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The tunnels are used to shuttle steam and natural gas from the University’s steam plant on 61st and Blackstone to every building on campus, including the hospitals and dorms. The steam is used for radiators, hot water, and anything else that requires heat.
Built in 1929, the steam tunnels have stood the test of time. The walls, measuring seven feet tall by eight feet wide, are made of cracked concrete and brick. The floors are made of clay, sometimes punctuated by shallow dips covered by metal ramps. Mineral deposits create tiny stalactites on the pipes and combine with the ground water to leave muddy pools on the floor.
The isolation of the tunnels has made them a target for wild speculation since their construction. In the 1960s, rumors circulated that a girl had been murdered in the tunnels. Police have no records that such a murder occurred, but there has been evidence of other shady activity in the tunnels. In a 1999 interview with the alumni magazine, Assistant Manager for the Steam Plant Mike DeSoto mentioned finding beer bottles and graffiti underground.
The tunnels have never been open to the public, but the lack of security in the past had made it relatively easy for pedestrians to gain access. According to steam plant foreman Dave Vandas, that changed when extra security was added 12 years ago.
“No one’s seen any students in the tunnels since they put security gates in,” he said.
But a handful of students have found ways to sneak in over the past few years.
Fourth-years Adam and Geoffrey made it a hobby during their first year to find a way into the fabled steam tunnel system. They requested their real names be withheld for fear of disciplinary action.
“I talked to this guy who said he’d been in them. He wouldn’t go into specifics though because he said I should never go down there,” Adam said.
Getting into the tunnels was no easy task. First the students had to find the entrances, which was a long process of trial-and-error.
“We started out just walking around campus for hours on end in the middle of the night, looking at funny things on the ground, seeing if they would open,” Geoffrey said.
The first time Adam got into the tunnel system was in May 2007. He was exploring the smaller, crawl tunnels under the quads when he found a connection to the larger tunnels. Because the crawl tunnels are so narrow, he shimmied along a grimy pipe until he found an entrance.
Adam and Geoffrey eventually found safer, cleaner routes through manholes scattered around campus and doors in the basements of buildings. The most obvious entrances, however, are grates fitted with Lev-L-Locks, which they opened from above with a crowbar. These grates serve as emergency exits from the tunnels, and can be recognized by their widely spaced bars and the large, solid metal square that covers the lock.
The two students found that these grates were often unlocked.
Not that locks would have stopped Adam and Geoffrey; they looked up the lock’s patent and learned how to pick it.
“At least one lockable entrance is unlocked at any given time,” Adam said. “It’s kind of alarming.”
In fact, Adam and Geoffrey were able to get into the steam tunnels via an entrance on Woodlawn Avenue in February this year as pedestrians walked along the nearby sidewalk.
Though Vandas acknowledges that steam tunnel employees occasionally forget to lock up when they walk the tunnels every Monday and Friday to check for faults and irregularities in the pipes, the tunnels are outfitted with security cameras and are monitored around the clock. Adam and Geoffrey were able to bypass the cameras by figuring out their locations and sneaking by them.
Bob Mason, spokesman for the University of Chicago Police Department, said that, should any students get caught in the tunnels or trying to enter them, the punishment would vary depending on the situation. Repeat offenders would not get off with just a warning, he said.
Getting caught isn’t the only danger the tunnels pose. Internal temperatures can rise as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Vandas calls the heat “an acquired taste”; employees who walk the tunnels are advised to bring along water.
According to the University’s employee training Web site, steam plant workers must go through exhaustive safety instruction, including asbestos awareness, training for confined spaces, and upper-level electrical safety. They must also re-take fire and respiratory safety training each year.
Both Vandas and the students say they have never been in any life-threatening situations.
Despite the risk, the two students became regular underground explorers after finding their way into the tunnels. The pair says they explored the entirety of the tunnel system, although a new tunnel has since been built to accommodate the South Campus Residence Hall and the Logan Arts Center.
They’ve even come to recognize signs of the tunnels above ground. They pointed out that the swath of melted snow running parallel to Swift, Rosenwald, and Walker Halls is a clear indicator of the tunnel directly underneath. It makes a straight path, marking where the heat from the tunnels has melted the snow.
The students’ biggest underground discoveries were two massive chambers within the tunnel system. One, they said, is at the end of the quad on University Avenue and houses a huge cluster of machines and pipes. The other, which they call “steam tunnel HQ,” lies underneath Cobb and the Administration Building. Besides acting as an access point to the tunnels under the hospitals, the area has a map on one of its walls detailing the whole tunnel system.
Adam and Geoffrey say they never partied in the tunnels. They call their exploration an “academic” pursuit, motivated by curiosity rather than rebelliousness. They even kept a record of their journey.
“We left our map down there,” Adam said, “It’s right outside of Ryerson.”
In spite of spending months learning to pick locks and trying to lift manhole covers, the students say the tunnels lost their intrigue soon after they gained access.
“I haven’t gone down there in years,” Geoffrey said, “Once you’ve done it, you kind of get over it.”
Still, they’re proud to say they are part of a network of students across the country who go out looking for their university’s architectural secrets. From CalTech to Texas A&M, students have posted photographs and testimonials of their underground adventures online.
At the U of C, however, spelunkers are rare. The two students were the only people they knew who had been in the tunnels, and they had only heard rumors that others had been there too.
“We asked around, and nobody even knew that they existed,” Adam said.
Not to mention that they’re incredibly hard to break into. It took the students two months’ worth of research and trial and error before they successfully got in. While searching for the steam tunnels they happened across so many other underground curiosities—a “secret” library underneath Harper, a loading dock below the hospital complex. Adam and Geoffrey started to believe that other students had incorrectly identified these underground areas as steam tunnels, and that, in fact, the tunnels were completely inaccessible.
“We really thought we’d never find them,” Geoffrey said. “It was really just an excuse to wander around everywhere.”