26 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, April 14, 2000
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By David Enders a Daily St
Although most students may not know it, the
heat emanating from the kiosks arund Central
Campus comes from an underground steam
tunnel system that supplies heat to all loal University
buildings. Many older schools have similar systems, but
throughout the University's history, students have
descended into the systerm to explore, and urban
legends about them abound.
The tunnels run for six miles, originating at the
Power Plant on Huron Street and snaking out as
fhr the Medical Campus and South Quad Resi-
dence hall, connecting almost all buildings in
But a trip down into the tunnels today
reveals a less romantic atmosphere than
urban legend describes. Students with
notions of the catacombs in Paris or ideas of
actual spelunking would be disappointed.
Most of the tunnels are made of reinforced
concrete and are uncomfortably warm --
between 90 and 120 degrees - due to the
heat given off by the steam pipes.
"You could see the patterns of the tunnels in
the Diag in the winter when it melts the snow,'
said "Tunnel Bob," who was a student at the Uni-
versity from 1971-75. But the heat from the pipes
nels was locked from the outside.
Bob said that it was relatively easy to get into
the tunnels at the time.
"In the Law Club basement you could go
He and his friends went into the tunnels
often enough that they developed a sense of
direction in the below-ground realm.
"There was a group of maybe five or six of us
that went down there a lot."
lie mentioned little fear of getting caught
while exploring and said that other students did it
as well, often to enter the old Buhl Medical
Building for what Bob could only describe as a
"surreal" sight -- a room full of human fetuses
"You went into this gigantic room that had
a ceiling maybe 20 feet high, and you went
through a door into this storage room where
there wsere all these fetuses bathed in ultravi-
Clyde Trapp, a pipe insulator, leads the way through the complex network of tunnels beneath Central Campus. He is
one of seven full-time employees of the University who spend the bulk of their day underground.
didn't keep Bob and his
friends from exploring
Bob, who asked that
only his nickname be
used, had his first experi-
ence with the steam tun-
nel system when he was a
freshman living in Mary
Markley Residence flall.
"We were down in the
"I've gone in when it's
nice out and come out
with a couple of inches
of snow on the ground."
- Clyde Trapp
When asked about
the popular myth that
students often used
the tunnels to smoke
marijuana, Bob was
"You could pretty
much smoke dope
wherever you wanted,"
loading dock and these
guys stuck their heads out of (a hole in) the wall.
and asked us where they were. They said they
were from East Quad.'
I lis interest piqued, Bob and his friends started
what they called the "lEl" and began to explore
the tunnel system.
"The Elliot Expeditionary Force because
we liv ed in Mark ley, in Elliot H ouse," Bob
During his four years at the Unix ersity, he and
his friends descended into the tunnels so regular-
ly that a Markley security guard gave him the
moniker "Steam Tunnel Bob."
Bob explained that he and his friends enjoyed
being in the steam tunnels, "To do something that
was sort of semi-illegal, to explore."
Technically it is considered trespassing if stu-
dents are caught in the tunnels.
The highlight of their tunneling came when
they turned ol'f the hot water to 815 South Uni-
versity Ave.. the home of the University presi-
dent. They then attempted to tuntel into the
Student Publications Building to tell The Michi-
gan Daily's editors about their prank, but the
closet in which a trap door emerges from the tun-
protecting the tunnels paled in comparison to the
motion-sensors that keep guard today, Bob said
he and his friends did have one run-in with offi-
"One time we went down there stoned and we
thought we saw a security guard and we ran out (of
the tunnels on the medical campus) in front of
three campus cops and they were chasing us
around the Markley Parking structure - somehow
they ended up on the top floor and we ended up on
the bottom, and we got the hell out of there."
The tunnels also came in handy for beating
other students to popular spots on campus.
"We'd get in early to the Waterman gym to go
play basketball because there was always a lot of
competition to get a court on Saturday mornings.
We used to get there about a half-hour ahead of
everyone else and we'd be playing already," Bob
As graduation neared and the threat of a
trespassing arrest seemed more serious, Bob
and company went into the tunnels less fre-
quently - but it didn't kill his drive for
"If I knew I could go down there without being
caught I'd go down there in a minute."
Besides pranks and careless cavorting, the
tunnels have even inspired literature.
Ken Millar, an English graduate student at the
University in the 1940s, wrote detective novels
under the pseudonym Ross MacDonald.
After Millar was nearly caught by a security
guard while exploring the tunnels, he was
inspired enough to use them in one of his books,
"The Dark Tunnel," which takes place at the fic-
tional Midwestern university town of "Arbana."
Although Tunnel Bob and Millar found it easy
to gain access to the tunnel system, getting
caught is a more likely scenario today. Motion
detectors have been installed throughout the
entire network, some active 24 hours a day.
Facilities and Operations spokeswoman Diane
Brown said when students are caught in the tun-
nels, penalties are usually decided on a case-by-
"It depends on the severity of the danger
you're in and the safety of others," Brown said,
explaining that officers have the option of simply
reading trespass laws to violators or simply
Clyde Trapp is one of the people who is sup-
posed to be in the tunnels. An Ann Arbor native,
he works for the University as a tunnel pipe insula-
tor - spending his workday not in an office, but
six feet below campus sidewalks, making sure that
the steam pipes don't lose too much heat from the
joints where they connect to each other.
The Department of Public Safety will "be com-
ing at us from all sides," Trapp said as he passed by
a motion detector under the University Museum of
Art. He radioed to the DPS office in Mason Hall to
warn them of his presence.
Trapp said he doesn't mind spending his days
below ground, but he said it makes for the occa-
"I've gone in when it's nice and come out with
a couple inches of snow on the ground."
Trapp laughed at the question about students
smoking marijuana in the tunnels.
"I always heard they grew mushrooms down
here," he said.
Trapp is part of a crew of seven full-time Uni-
versity employees who spend most of their time
in the tunnels. The other six are steam fitters, in
charge of maintaining the pipes.
"It's a consistent process of replacement," said
Greg Metz, who has worked at the Central Power
Plant for 20 years. He is in charge of the crew, as
well as the power facility on East Huron Street,
behind the Power Center.
Metz's six foot two frame nearly grazes the top
of the tunnels, but he and Trapp have learned to
navigate them without trouble. The only indica-
inhabited by any of the rodent life one might
"Just some silverfish, he said.
Metz said that it is rare to catch students in the
tunnels, but that there have been a few instances
over the last few months.
They get in when "various doors get left open
after construction," Metz said.
Making an entrance
Students aren't the only people who have used
the tunnels to move around campus. In the 1980s,
then-University President Harold Shapiro and the
University Board of Regents were blocked by
students from entering the Fleming Administra-
tion Building to hold their monthly meeting.
"The students had in effect chained themselves
to the doors," Regent emeritus Thomas Roach
The Board of Regents had previously obtained
a court injunction to dispel the protesters, who
were demanding that the University bestow an
honorary degree on Nelson Mandela, but instead
of getting police to remove the protesters, Roach,
his fellow regents and the University executive
officers, including the president, descended into
the tunnels and emerged inside the building.
"We certainly felt it was unique," Roach said.
"It worked out fine."
Roach said he had heard of the tunnels when
he was a student at the University, but that it was
his first and only time in them.
But Roach's experience with the tunnels isn't
the last time the regents dealt with the subter-
In October, the regents approved a $1.7 million
renovation to the tunnels running under South
State Street, which are eroding due to salt and
The salt "gets into the metal and it rusts and
expands" Metz said.
Another project in the "design phase" - a
proposed $8 million plan would construct new
tunnels connecting the planned Life Sciences
Building to the Central Power Plant.
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