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Urban explorations: Unearthing the underground UW

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Power Plant Manager Barry Frost walks through the west tunnel Wednesday July 16, 2008. Frost and the maintenance crew must ensure that the tunnels are capable of functioning in case of emergencies.

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This portion of one of the larger tunnels is lined on the right side with ducts carrying steam and water. The other side holds high voltage electricity lines and network equipment.

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The tunnels under campus provide power and networking to nearly all of the UW buildings.

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A ladder with torn grips extends upward towards emergency exits and other tunnels.

As I descended down the metal staircase inside the UW power plant, the air got warmer. Machines whirred and hissed around me, creating steam and spinning turbines to power the UW.

I had heard about the labyrinth of underground tunnels that span the campus, but I knew very little about them and had never ventured down there. Barry Frost, the power plant manager, accompanied me on my descent under campus.

Frost opened a heavy steel door into the tunnels and flicked a switch, illuminating a half mile or more of tunnel.

“These here are 13,800 volts,” he said while holding a cluster of wires. “Also, there’s asbestos,” he said, pointing to the insulation around the steam pipes. I was particularly concerned about being steamed alive if one of those pipes were to burst.

This was West Tunnel 1 (WT1), which spans the entirety of campus. Housing the largest steam pipes and highest voltage wires, this tunnel is the central nervous system of the UW.

“Ever wonder why there are no power lines above ground on campus?” Frost said. “Because everything is underground. Electricity, heating, fiber optics, … it’s all underground.”

“The first time I went down there I was really scared,” said Bill Howard, who worked in the tunnels as a steam fitter until he retired in 2007 due to job-related neck injuries.

“I saw a girl coming down a tunnel and I thought it was a mirage. She came up right next to me, and I still didn’t believe what I saw. She was a student who had gotten lost in the tunnels.”

Howard has found about a dozen students who were trapped in the tunnels overnight. The students were frantic and scared, sometimes crying, and all of them just wanted to get out, he said.

“The first student I found in the tunnels I turned into the police,” Howard said. “He got kicked out of school. After that I didn’t turn any in. … They are just curious.”

One student he didn’t turn in later graduated from the UW School of Dentistry and was eventually Howard’s dentist. Another tunnel-exploring student was a high-profile athlete.

Students would often use the tunnels to sneak into sports events, Howard said.

“We would always wonder why there were students hanging from the rafters of the pavilion or where they had come from,” Howard said.

It turns out that band members knew the tunnel entrances to Hec Edmundson Pavilion and would sneak their friends into the games.

Unauthorized entry into the tunnels is considered a first-degree criminal trespass, according to the UW Police Department (UWPD), carrying a maximum sentence of one year in jail, a $5,000 fine and possible expulsion from the University.

“It’s more a matter of safety,” said Mark Kirschenbaum, assistant director of Campus Utilities. “Students have been very creative in gaining access to the tunnels. They have moved 13,800-volt cables so they can shimmy down the cable tray. It is dangerous and unnecessary.”

Despite the dangers, or sometimes just due to ignorance of them, many student adventurers have traveled through the tunnels. One student — who requested anonymity but has published a post on a blog under the penname Tunnelboy — ventured into the tunnels this past spring. He did so despite the harsh penalties, driven by curiosity, he said.

“I’ve heard all of the legal implications about getting caught in the tunnels, but that’s why I try not to get caught,” Tunnelboy said. “No one plans to get caught when they break the law.”

“I explore the tunnels to fulfill my sense of adventure and satisfy my own curiosity,” he said.

Accompanied by Frost, I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but it was still an adventure. Human beings have often fantasized about what lies beneath the ground, producing works that depict “mole people” living underground and adventurers traveling through sewers.

The history of these tunnels is a loose one, filled with hearsay. Kirschenbaum, Howard and Frost agree that construction began in about 1895. The 19th century excavators used mule carts to move dirt and lived in the tunnels until a section was completed. Some equipment still in use came from WWII Germany and bears Nazi insignia.

Tunnelboy said that other adventurers who preceded him left dates painted on the walls of the steam tunnels.

“I’ve seen 10-17-07 right next to 1-31-77,” Tunnelboy said, noting that the oldest date he saw was painted in 1954.

Tunnels have been added as new buildings were constructed on campus, and almost every building is connected to the system. The newest addition was made for William H. Gates Hall, the Law School building, in 2003.

“You can get anywhere in those tunnels,” Howard said. “I would go home through them. I would walk from the power plant to [the] Mercer [dormitories] or to the Fisheries building.”

Howard is particularly concerned about the safety of the tunnels and feels that a big accident loomed on the horizon. The tunnels have caught fire before and are still colored black from the lapping flames.

The steam tunnels would also by very dangerous if an earthquake were to shake the region. During the 2001 Nisqually quake, all Howard could do was run through the tunnels to the nearest exit. Since then, new escape hatches have been installed that only open from the inside, in case people are caught in the tunnels during an earthquake or other emergency.

The tunnels could also be emergency exit routes instead of death traps. I heard a rumor that the UW president could use the tunnels during the civil rights era to escape rioting students. Frost could not confirm this, but he said that when he began working in the tunnels in 1985 he saw signs on entrances marking them as nuclear fallout shelters.

Most importantly, Frost said, the power plant and tunnels have to be ready to provide electricity to the UW Medical Center and UWPD in the case of an event like an earthquake. He said the power plant has backup diesel generators that are supposed to come online within 10 seconds to provide power for life-support systems and other equipment in the Medical Center.

We reached the end of the WT1, which snaked to the left, headed for the Fisheries building. Part of the mystery of the UW steam tunnels had been solved, but I felt like there was still so much left that could be dug up. Later, when I was writing this article, I gave Howard a call to see if he could get me back down in the tunnels. The opportunity didn’t materialize, but there will always be the possibility for another story.

The English poet William Blake once said, “In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors.”

Every metal door I saw led to a new tunnel and a whole new adventure.

“Some think the idea of subterranean corridors is too far-fetched,” Tunnelboy said. “I chose to believe in the existence of the tunnels and pursued my faith.”

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