“I’ll have to get you a hard hat,” said Ron Hess, the assistant director of Plant Operations. He plunked two sturdy flashlights on the desk. We’ll need these down there too, he added.
Ooh. Exciting. A little spelunking anyone?
Believe it or not, over three miles of dark man-sized tunnels wind under the EWU campus, heating and cooling buildings with steam pipes.
“Over the years we just kept adding and adding and adding,” said Hess.
We descend. Dozens of giant pipes stretch away down into the darkness of the tunnel, leaving a narrow walkway.
Cobwebs, some spanning more than four feet wide, line the corners. Rusted pools of open groundwater collect in the low spots.
White stalactites can even be seen at some point. It’s old down here, to say the least.
About 36 years ago, the university started building the tunnels, one stretch at a time.
It is easier to do maintenance on heating, air conditioning and electricity when crews can just walk down to the facilities gauges, instead of having to dig up the pipes.
And of course, the tunnels have their stories.
In the mid ’70s, tunnel maintenance crews discovered a student hideout in the tunnels under the PUB. Someone had cleaned up a chamber, moved in a lamp, a bed and even stole a section of new rug from the PUB to make a cozy little bedroom.
They were even sneaking up into the PUB cafeteria at night for their food. Before the police could raid the place, word spread of the discovery and no one was ever caught.
In the ’70s, the tunnels were prepped to be fallout shelters, complete with food and survival supplies.
Very few people are allowed down in the tunnels these days because, Hess says, it is just too dangerous.
He turns a steam spigot for demonstration. The pipe shrieks out a huge cloud of boiling steam, 337 degrees hot and with 100 pounds of pressure behind it. Monster pipes like these are everywhere down here, some thicker than a man’s waist.
We “turn a corner.” In these tunnels, what “turning a corner” really means is you throw one leg over a massive pipe, crouch and lean over and slide off the other side.
At least that’s what Hess did.
I chose to duck under the pipe, which turned into a crawl, which turned into a nice tetanus-ridden scrape against some ragged concrete under the pipe. Nice.
A few more minutes and we turn to leave. On our way out, I couldn’t help but notice some fading letters slashed into a yellowing “Save Electricity” sticker.
“Vote Jimmy Carter,” it read.