Pipe Dreams

April 12, 2010, 11:58 a.m.

It’s dark. It’s hot. It’s steamy, and hell, it’s dangerous.

It could pass for a setting straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark and draws comparisons to the mysterious men’s locker room at Avery Aquatic Center. Yet while the common male student has braved the locker room, only a few daring individuals have explored the intricacies of the Stanford steam tunnel system.

The subterranean system, built in 1881, takes saturated steam and pipes it to over 200 campus and medical center buildings. The tunnels and pipes are still used to this day to heat our water and buildings. But for enterprising students, the tunnels transport more than just steam.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: Some students said that the hardest part of steam tunneling is finding an entrance. Entrance points can vary from manholes to secret grates or doors. Oftentimes it is just sheer luck that leads students to an available entrance that is not bolted or locked.

Plunging into the depths of the network of tunnels beneath the Main Quad, students seek to discover the mystery that lives under our feet and has remained a forbidden intrigue since the University’s original development. Stanford Magazine voted steam tunneling one of the “101 things you must do” before graduating from the Farm. From a forbidden foray for those who like to drink, socialize or even fornicate in a dirty place to a chance to form a connection to the literal roots of our University, students have been navigating the underground corridors for decades.

Wielding a dingy, white towel to protect themselves from the scalding pipes, a flashlight to navigate the dark corridors and water bottles to keep themselves hydrated, one group of eager explorers journeyed through the tunnels in the hopes of happening upon unexplored territories. They dreamed of creating a map that could one day be used to aid other hopeful adventurers. (No names are used because of potential legal liability for steam tunnelers.)

“If you’re scared of the dark, claustrophobic, scared of bugs or rats…it’s probably not for you,” one student warned. “I would say it’s just a fun thing if you’re looking for that extra adventure.”

For one veteran, the initial thought on his mind when he first entered the humid tunnel was, “Well, this smells lovely.”

“I guess the smell just serves as a reminder that you’re underground—in tunnels that haven’t been used for a while,” he added.

The walls closed in as soon as they entered. Most of the time the students were forced into a crouching position, and sometimes the corridors were narrow enough to prevent passage of even the smallest student. The walls were made of faded red brick and the floor was covered in dirt, making for a messy journey.

Most of the tunnels were connected to one larger passage that some of the human moles referred to as the “main corridor.” This has many offshoots, sometimes leading to locked gates, other times leading to flooded, impassible sections of the tunnels.

“There’s a small room off the main corridor where you move a board and behind it is a bunch of names and dates,” said one sophomore. “The oldest date was something in the fifties…It’s really cool.”

Tunnelers ducked below pipes and contorted their bodies to avoid touching hot surfaces. Yet some of the most difficult obstacles were those left behind by past adventurers who wanted to make their previous presence known. The tunnelers watched their steps to avoid beer cans, party favors, bottles, red cups and condom wrappers.

But the allure of partying in a cramped, dirty place is not the only reason to explore the tunnels. Some simply have an appreciation for the activity of tunneling itself and feel a connection with the history of the University by exploring the same tunnels that students have been navigating for years.

“It’s fun because it’s supposed to be this secret deal,” said a sophomore. “It’s kind of mysterious.”

There’s a certain satisfaction on the faces of the tunnelers when they’ve completed a successful trip through the system. After a journey through the dark and stifling tunnels, the fresh air relieves their heat-weathered faces and the light is a familiar friend. Already, they’re talking of their next underground trip.

“At first I did it because I thought it sounded cool,” said one of the tunnelers after the trip. “Well, my expectations were pretty much met on the coolness factor.”

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