The steam tunnels. It seems like everyone on campus has heard of them, but what’s it really like down there? Could you get in trouble for exploring beneath Northwestern? In this AskNBN, Gabe Schmittlein and Rahul Parikh investigate. Editor’s note: names have been changed to provide student anonymity. Transcript below.
[Music: 2.12.05 Elevator by BOPD]
Rahul Parikh: Welcome to AskNBN. I'm Rahul Parikh.
Gabe Schmittlein: And I'm Gabe Schmittlein. A lot of Northwestern students have heard rumors about the steam tunnels that run under the campus.
Rahul: So we decided to hop on the gossip train and check it out. Alright, so we have Jane and John here with us today, and we are going to talk them about the steam tunnels at Northwestern today. So, can you guys just start by telling us what it's like down there?
John: Hot. It's down there.
Jane: It's pretty cramped, there's some spaces where you really have to push yourself almost against the wall to fit through, but I mean obviously it's walkable since people are supposed to work there.
John: Yeah, it's a cool location, it would be a great place to shoot a film, not that I'm an RTVF major or anything, but…
Rahul: You're giving yourself away.
John: Giving myself away, yeah! I think it's kind of dirty down there, probably asbestos down there, but that's okay. It's worth the risk.
Rahul: Alright, so what are some of the access points to the tunnels?
John: So there's one access point near the library, there is a door underneath the library that you can use to access it. There is an opening near Dearborn Observatory, and apparently there's an opening in the basement of tech as well?
Jane: It's true, there's actually two steam tunnels, which a lot of people don't know. There's one that runs North-South, and one that runs East-West. So, the main one that most people do runs from North Campus to South Campus, but the other one runs the other way. I actually have not been in that one. Technically, I haven't been in either of them, right?
Gabe: Maybe a future AskNBN excursion, we'll see.
John: Maybe in like half an hour.
Rahul: Yeah, so would you say the tunnels are actually useful for transporting yourself during the winter, per se?
John: People have theorized about this quite a lot. Everyone I've brought down there has asked the same question. The answer is not really, because down during the winter it's even warmer down there, so it's almost unbearable to be down there.
Jane: I think it would be really funny if we had a bunch of kids with really big backpacks try to shove themselves in the tunnel, and then try to walk through without burning any of their homework. I think this would be a great experiment.
Gabe: Have either of you had any close calls down there?
John: Lots of fun stories, so one time I was down there in the maintenance shaft, and there was a table, and there were somebody's clothes on the table, as well as a bunch of food on the table, so we assumed some guy was down there, but we still explored anyway. And one of my other friends, he took a little bolt or screwdriver from the table. So, I heard he is still being hunted by the maintenance man to this day.
Rahul: Jane, how about you?
Jane: Um, I mean one time I went down there and opened a door and there was a guy using the vending machines, right by where we were trying to leave. Also once, when I, it was really dumb, it was really early in the night and I had already gone down there, it was probably like 9 p.m., and I left right outside of Main Library, and there were all these kids inside Main that were waving to me as I left and went back to my dorm, and I was so glad that no authority figures saw that, cause so many people were there.
Rahul: So is this a risk that you guys would recommend?
John: One-hundred percent, yeah, I'm all about taking risks, like being spontaneous, you gotta go out and do stuff. Otherwise if you get expelled for not doing stuff, then what's the point?
Jane: When you die, it's not the things in your life that you did do that you'll regret, but the things you didn't do.
John: Exactly. One-hundred percent.
Jane: Also though, it takes someone that knows what they're doing with you. Because if you go just by yourself, I feel like you might get stuck.
Gabe: Wise words from Jane.
Jane: Wise words, yes.
Rahul: Wise words.
Jane: Not like that's like a quote or anything, it's original.
Rahul: Yeah, jumping off that, are there any like tips that you would give to people who are going down there for the first time?
John: Don't wear a long-sleeve shirt, but wear long pants, so you don't accidentally burn your leg on there too.
Jane: Uh yeah, if you're not sure whether you can touch something or not, touch it really fast first, don't put your full weight on it. Seems pretty obvious, but you never know. I've had people burn themselves.
Rahul: Any other places on the campus that you're gonna go to next?
Jane: Roof of Swift is a personal favorite, but you have to try it when the ladder is rolled down, because otherwise you have to literally be seven feet tall to reach the fire escape. Uh, I don't want to give away anything else, otherwise someone who hears this might block off all the fun spaces.
Gabe: Yeah, don't be rude, don't be blocking off stuff.
John: Another place is the Calvary cemetery, which is just off of the South Boulevard stop, so there's a little hole in the fence that you can squeeze through, and it's really nice for having a picnic at like 2 a.m. or midnight.
Jane: Yeah, especially 'cuz it closes at 4 p.m.
Gabe: This is for all you big cemetery people out there.
John: Great date spot!
Gabe: Yeah, date spot? If, umm, maybe?
John: If you're so inclined.
Rahul: So you've heard it here from our resident daredevils on this campus, yeah, check it out.
Jane: I'm honored.
Rahul: Yeah, thanks guys.
Gabe: Thank you guys so much!
John: Thank you for your time!
Gabe: Any parting words?
Jane: Get steamy!
Gabe: Get steamy, hehe.
Rahul: So, after hearing the rumors, we wanted to see if any of them held weight with the university.
Gabe: We ended up talking to facilities management to see what they thought about the situation.
Jim McKinney: I'm Jim McKinney, I'm the Director of [Facilities Mangement] Operations for the Evanston campus.Dave Vandas: I'm Dave Vandas, Chief Maintenance Engineer here on campus.
Gabe: Alright, can you guys talk a little bit about the history of the steam tunnels, and what they are for?
Jim: They're for distribution of utilities across the campus, so they have steam pipes, condensate return pipes, chilled water pipes, electric, there's data and telecom down there, couple of other utilities that run through the tunnels. They date back, some of them are more than 50 years old.
Gabe: How often do you guys sort of go down there and work on them?
Jim: We're down there regularly, not on a daily basis. They're really not intended for people to be walking through. It's really for protecting the utilities, and to keep them in better condition than they would be if they're buried.
Rahul: Can you talk a little bit about the different entrances there are?
Jim: Can't really talk in any detail about where the entrances to the tunnels are, they are confined spaces, which means they're federally regulated spaces. That's why we highly discourage students from going into them. University Police would be called if we found students down in the tunnels, but they do serve the majority of campus.
Rahul: What are some of the consequences to getting caught down there, so like the first step would be calling University Police, but what happens from there?
Jim: That would be a conversation with the police, we're not really sure. From our standpoint, we're more concerned about the safety of somebody that was down in the tunnels. Radio reception for our staff is spotty at best down there, cell phone reception in a lot of the tunnel system is nonexistent, and you're surrounded by high voltage, electric cabling – more than 4,000 volts runs through there. The chilled water system is under pressure. If that were to leak, that's a million gallon system, behind that leak. The steam system itself is 230 pounds of steam, that's more than 450 degrees. So it's really not a safe environment for anybody to be in.
[Music: 2.12.05 Elevator by BOPD]
Rahul: The steam tunnels are a dangerous game, another example of the ever-present tension between student risk-taking and administrative safety.
Gabe: We hope to have accurately represented both sides, so that the choice of whether to go into the steam tunnels is now an informed one.
Rahul: For North By Northwestern, this has been AskNBN.
Gabe: The music for this episode was BOPD’s “2.12.05 Elevator.”
Rahul: I'm Rahul Parikh.
Gabe: And I'm Gabe Schmittlein.
Gabe and Rahul: Stay steamy.
[Music: 2.12.05 Elevator by BOPD]