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Steam tunnels: the forbidden underworld of Berkeley

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FEBRUARY 25, 2014

A series of interconnected tunnels winds under the ground. The murky fog inside makes it hard to see anything but red and green lights, and every so often a hissing noise comes forth from deep within. Sounds like the dungeons of an old enchanted castle, right? Wrong! It turns out that this fantastical system of tunnels lies right under our feet, creating the mystical Berkeley steam tunnels.

The steam system was built in the early 1900s to generate power for the campus. The high pressure steam, generated in the heating plant just northwest of Haas Pavilion, travels through a network of pipes to other areas of campus. The steam tunnels also house some network and phone cables, despite intense heat and humidity.

The tunnel itself is rather narrow and poses an alarming number of hazardous threats. Hot steam, probable presence of asbestos, heat exhaustion and exposure to radon gas are just some of the risks involved when you enter this underground network.

Yet despite their dangerous environment, the steam tunnels were once seen as a tourist attraction and escape route. As recently as the 1980s, students living in residence halls would explore the steam tunnels as a recreational activity, although these activities were not endorsed by the campus. According to this online forum, the underground tunnels also have a much more dramatic, Berkeley-esque history associated with them. According to legend referenced in the forums, in the 1960s, students chained the doors of the chancellor’s door handles together in protest of one of the chancellor’s policies regarding the Vietnam War. Having no other way to get out of the building, the chancellor escaped via the steam tunnels.

Running from the edge of Hearst Memorial Mining Building to Stern Hall, there is also an old mining tunnel called the Lawson adit (not connected to the steam tunnels), which was used in the early 1900s for a very different purpose — to teach students practical mining methods. It’s locked now, but it’s an interesting relic of how UC Berkeley students used to learn.

Mention of these steam tunnels in the last few years has dwindled to almost nothing, and they have been fitted with an advanced locking mechanism which prevents entry from the outside. Officials may say that such a dangerous environment must be closed off, but we have other ideas about what’s down there now. Could it be a three-headed dog named Fluffy? Has Gollum relocated?

Image source: featured photo

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a campuswide power outage Sept. 30 led to an explosion in one of the underground steam tunnels. In fact, the explosion and fire took place in a vault housing an electrical switch. A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that students living in residence halls were taken on a guided tour of the tunnels as a recreational activity. In fact, these "hall tours" were taken of a student's own accord and not endorsed by the campus.
Contact Shruti Koti at [email protected].

MARCH 03, 2014

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