Ben Hines was the webmaster of the "official" College Steam Tunnels website (RIP) and keeper of the alt.college.tunnels archives. I spoke with him to get a look at what tunneling is like in some of North America's most famous tunnel networks.
Infiltration: What first attracted you to the idea of tunneling?
Ben Hines: I've always been interested in anything behind the scenes that most people don't get to see. I am a theatre tech major I run around backstage. I've always loved caves and the unknown. Tunnels seemed very exciting to me when I first heard about them.
I: When and where did you first make the subterranean plunge?
BH: That would have been my freshman year of college here at UCSD.
I: Approximately how many times have you been back? Why?
BH: I have been back tunneling in the main section of tunnels probably five or six times. Usually the reason I would go to the same section of tunnels again would be to show people who have never been before ("guided tours"), or to see if anything is different. Usually many doors are locked or otherwise unopenable, and when re-visited they are sometimes open. So, the more times you go the better chance you have to see them all, especially some of the less-used sections. But there is enough variety and enough buildings on campus to keep me busy going to different places for a while. The tunnels are only a start. There are many other "inaccessible" places which we try to get to roofs, utility rooms (it's cool to see all the machinery, etc.), basements.
I: How do the tunnels of other colleges compare to your home tunnels?
BH: Me and a friend have been on two field trips to UCLA specifically to explore their tunnels. UCLA's tunnels are much more extensive than UCSD's, and have much more history as the campus is much older. There is much folklore about UCLA's tunnels, including the forgotten underground bridge the tunnels connect through a very impressive two-storey 100-by-200 foot underground room with a road on top of it. So we had to see this. When we first went to UCLA, we basically knew they connected to just about every building. After walking around for a while, we started looking at Royce Hall (UCLA's signature twin tower building), currently under major renovation. We found a window which had been left open on the basement level, half-underground with trees covering it and no lights around. It was perfect! So we climbed in and explored the massively de-constructed building. The massive abandoned (well, under renovation) theatre in the middle of the hall was very cool. It did not take long to find the three tunnel entrances in the building! The first tunnel we tried, the northbound one, was much like UCSD's older Revelle tunnels round with pipes on one side, fairly clean and decently lit. This came to a locked door to the basement of the library about a half mile on. So we turned around and hit the southern branch, which we knew (from the map we had) to lead to most of the tunnels. This section immediately seemed older. The tunnel was rectangular, about wide enough for one person, and stuffed to the brim with more cables and pipes than I've seen in a tunnel. Also the lights didn't work. And it was hot. The rest of the night was great fun, as we found the underground bridge and made it most of the way across campus.
We found UCLA's tunnels to have a great deal of variance in styles and sizes. This is unlike UCSD, which has one main system (all pretty much looking the same) and one older system which is more interesting. I highly recommend anyone in the LA area pay a visit to UCLA.
I: What supplies would you recommend aspiring tunnel runners bring along?
BH: The most basic supply would be a flashlight and perhaps some extra batteries. (I have had my flashlight go dim on me in a pitch black section of tunnel.. not fun) We also take a butter knife/normal knife and lockpicks to get through those pesky doors. Much more than that and you start to get unwieldy, which can make it difficult to climb around. Additionally, I have recently acquired a police (radio frequency) scanner which I will be taking along on any future trips... this to keep tabs on any security forces or alarm activations which might occur.
I: What safety precautions should be taken when tunneling?
BH: The main safety precaution would be that flashlight. Also, a jacket would be good to protect your arms from hot pipes if it's necessary to climb around them. I'd also always wear jeans. Not going alone is also a good rule of thumb. Of course, if you are alone and you see an opportunity (like an open door that hasn't been open before), by all means take it.
I: What, as you see it, is the big attraction of the tunnels?
BH: The big attraction, to me, is exploration. To "see it all." To go somewhere few people do, to see things few people see. Also "knowing more than someone else" showing off this secret place you know about to others is a lot of fun. There is some prestige in being the first one to get to a certain place. "Peeps" write small messages with their nickname and a date. We always do this if we get somewhere impressive.
I: What is the connection between tunneling and fantasy RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons?
BH: Well, there is the obvious, "dungeon" aspect of underground tunnels. Perhaps some people who were a little too into the game liked to equate the two. But as I see it, the whole D&D-College Tunnels thing has been exaggerated. All the people I know tunnel to explore and see hidden places, not to take part in some sort of game.
I: Were you ever part of a tunneling group?
BH: I wouldn't say I have ever been part of any group, but I do usually go tunneling with the same few people. I usually get a tunneling partner or two who I explore with for a while. Two or three people is the best number to have much more and it starts to get crowded.
I: Have you ever tried to map a set of tunnels?
BH: Indeed I have. I have made a small map of the UCSD tunnels, which is posted on my web site. This was made as an interim thing until I can scan the actual blueprints of the tunnels which I found in a utility room of one of the buildings on the UCSD campus (they weren't actually found in the tunnels, but one of the related heating/AC utility rooms which the tunnels serve). Maps of the UCLA tunnels have been useful to me in starting exploration of their tunnels, and also for knowing how far we progressed. Mapmaking in general is difficult, especially when what you are mapping is underground. It's easy to get disoriented. One person sent me "corrections" to my map, based on the one time he had been in the UCSD tunnels. I corrected him.
I: Have you ever picked locks or made keys to get into an off-limits area?
BH: Well.. umm.. Not me, personally. I do have several friends who are able lockpicks, however. It is a very useful skill to have. We made it into many places we never would have seen otherwise by picking locks. It's also a good way to get in and out without damaging anything. Surprisingly, lockpicking is not as hard as many might think.
I: Have you ever had any trouble with security while tunneling?
BH: I have only had one incident, where I thought I saw the guard, but made it away safely. I have never been "caught" as some are. The magnetic door alarms here at UCSD are big, primitive and obvious, so only an idiot would set them off.
I: Does your school have specific rules forbidding use of the tunnels?
BH: Many schools do have rules about tunnels. I do not know of any specific UCSD rules regarding the tunnels, but in my experience, students who are caught tunneling get off with a warning not to go back, as long as they weren't breaking or stealing anything. Expulsion or something more serious might result if the students are caught breaking/stealing, or if they run from the police. The police really don't like to chase people, especially in the tunnels!
I: What sort of security measures do the most off-limits tunnels employ?
BH: Here at UCSD, all we have in the actual tunnels are really old magnetic sensors on some of the doors. These are quite bulky and easy to detect. They generally don't work as anything but a deterrent (to some). Some buildings or higher-security areas might have motion detectors, but never in the tunnels themselves.
I: As you see it, what are the greatest dangers of tunneling?
BH: The greatest danger of tunneling would have to be the 400 degree steam pipes all around you. Avoid these, and you are OK. Well, the power lines running a couple feet away (the same ones normally up on poles) could be dangerous too, but they are generally insulated well.
I: Have you heard of people being injured while tunneling?
BH: I have never heard of anyone injured while tunneling. It could definitely happen, but most people I know are very careful.
I: What are the oldest steam tunnels in North America? How do they compare?
BH: There are some really old tunnels at some of the universities in Boston and New York. However, I bet the oldest steam tunnels would be under New York City. NYC has an amazing underground network of all types of tunnels, probably the most in the world. I hope to go urban spelunking there someday.
I: Have you ever heard stories of anyone exploring steam tunnels at an abandoned campus?
BH: I have not, but the concept is interesting. I would think most universities rich enough to build utility tunnel systems would still be in business you don't hear of colleges abandoning campuses every day. Anyway, a good part of the fun (for me, at least) is seeing all the cool machinery humming around you, and trying to figure out what it is. An abandoned campus would certainly have an additional scary element.
I: Have you ever tried spelunking in a natural cave?
BH: Yes I have. I've always been interested in natural caves as well. I own several books on caving. Unfortunately southern California is one of the least caved places in the US, so I have only been caving a couple times on vacations. I make up for it by urban spelunking.
This article originally appeared in Infiltration 4, together with other features related to college tunnels.