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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

Notes From the Underground: St. Olaf's Tunnels

By Peter Meng
Staff Writer


Friday, April 25, 2008

The administration was not going to be happy with me. Walking past the Deans' offices on my way to the President's suite made me nervous. This wasn't just any trip to the administration building -- I was here because of the tunnels. Friends had warned me about the dangers of entering the tunnels. Searing hot pipes carrying pressurized steam lined the sides of the tunnel, guaranteeing instant third-degree burns to the unlucky. Rumors had also been circulating that access to the tunnels was restricted due to collapses and structural failures in the past.

Getting caught inside of the tunnel meant being kicked off campus, or even worse -- expulsion.

In an e-mail, Dean Kneser warned me: "If we caught someone in the tunnels, we would have to determine an appropriate response, but it would likely include a very large fine, cost of damages and perhaps removal from housing or suspension."

Luckily, I wasn't going to an expulsion hearing. I was just running a bit behind schedule. Vice president of facilities Pete Sandberg had agreed to give a photographer and myself a tour of the tunnels.

My intrigue with the tunnels has been building for months. Even before Week One, rumors about tunnels here on campus have never ceased to stir my curiosity. During a game of ultimate frisbee over the summer, the existence of the tunnels was brought to my attention by a good friend.

Gathering information on entrances and the whereabouts of the tunnels was not easy. Attempts to interrogate junior counselors often resulted in responses like, "I can't tell you that," or "Don't go down in the tunnels." Many classmates pleaded ignorance when asked about any knowledge regarding the tunnels.

Finally, I came across a useful clue from an upperclassman who will not be named. She mentioned that the tunnels could easily be located in the winter based on paths created by melted snow.

With her advice, I proceeded to scope out the locations of tunnels on campus. Outside, melted trails of snow could be seen diverging from a location near the Science Center. From here, trails led to Mellby and the theater building. Although useful, this search yielded no answers on how to enter the tunnels.

I searched throughout the basement of Hilleboe and Kittelsby, desperately trying to find an entrance. Careful inspections of every storage room I could get into revealed nothing other than bed frames and loft kits. Unmarked doors beneath ground floor staircases were excessively armored against any trespasser. Could these be the secret entrances to the tunnels? I never found out.

However, a more likely entrance to the tunnels was soon found. While wandering Hillboe one morning, I came across a fire door with explicit warnings to keep clear. Curious about its contents, I attempted to open the door. The door was searing hot to the touch. I had found a likely entrance, but a locked door barred me from entering. Finding another way in or an unlocked entrance quickly became one of my top priorities.

I continued my investigation well into second semester. Then one day, I finally found a friend who seemed to know just about everything there was to know about the tunnels. Apparently, there were tour guides on campus, students who frequently ventured into the tunnels every month. With the right connections, anyone could hypothetically meet one and then venture into the tunnels. At last, my curiosity could finally be satisfied.

The utility tunnels have been in existence since the founding of St. Olaf. At their inception, the tunnels pushed St. Olaf ahead of its time. Before the widespread use of utility tunnels, power generation and heating was performed on an individual basis at each building. The use of tunnels minimized the number of boilers and generators needed on campus. By minimizing the amount of equipment on campus, maintenance costs and points of failure were drastically reduced.

We whizzed by several prospective students on our way to a mechanical room on the ground floor. None of them were aware of the secrets this campus held.

My first look around the room concluded that this was simply an ordinary mechanical room. Pipes and cables protruded from all directions, confining us to a small corner. However, at the back of the room, there stood an unmarked door.

Unlocking the door revealed a small, pitch-black corridor stretching for hundreds of feet in two directions. Large pipes could be seen mounted to the wall. We had just entered the elaborate labyrinth of tunnels beneath St. Olaf.

We entered the north tunnels, the newer portion of the tunnels at St. Olaf. To our left, a warm, light breeze fed air back to the physical plant. At our right, the tunnels gradually sloped down the hill towards Skoglund. We began our journey towards Skoglund.

With the frigid temperatures outside, the idea of walking around in the tunnels rather than tromping around outside seemed to be a good idea. Temperatures inside the tunnel reminded me of a tropical island. Too bad we can't use these tunnels during the winter.

Our journey through the tunnels almost felt as if it was hindered by their design. We were forced to climb over and crawl under several pipes. Light switches were difficult to find and often placed behind or between pipes.

The dangers of the tunnels soon became obvious. On one side, several pipes were mounted to the wall. Pipes carrying steam pressurized at 150 pounds per square inch and steam condensate stretched the entire length of the tunnel. Small leaks could occasionally be heard while walking about the tunnels.

On the other side, 13,000 volt electrical cables lined the wall. Bad experiences with electricity and water as a child taught me to be cautious around sources of power. I was not going to let myself get electrocuted.

Although I had never been inside the tunnels, the path we took down towards Skoglund seemed awfully familiar. In fact, the tunnels we were in were directly underneath the staircase leading down to Skoglund. Remnants from a failed insulation project could be seen throughout the tunnel. As seen around campus, the heat leaking from the tunnels is just enough to melt snow. On sidewalks, the melted snow often ends up turning into ice, transforming a normally peaceful walk into a treacherous journey. In addition to the insulation and piping lining the walls of the tunnels, our predecessors had left an odd assortment of Lord of the Rings graffiti on the walls of the tunnels. Messages included: "Gandalf was here," "Aragorn was here '85" and "Heed the Goblin King's warning: snails and snakes and puppy dog tails."

As we continued walking down towards Skoglund, we passed several unmarked doors. Some led to other buildings including Christiansen Hall of Music, while others led to electrical equipment. An unmarked door revealed electrical equipment from the wind turbine. Sandberg indicated that the electrical equipment installed had the capacity to support up to two more turbines.

At last, we finally arrived beneath Skoglund in a room of behemoth size under the realm of Christmas Fest. A vent stretched the entire length of the room, quietly circulating air to the basketball courts above. On one side, giant cylinders resembling boilers stretched the entire length of the building. Contrary to my observations, Sandberg pointed out that these devices were merely heat exchangers that extracted energy from steam for heating.

On the other side of the room, telecom and computer equipment lined the walls. Racks of routers and hubs were stuffed full of different colored cables coming from all parts of the building. After a thorough investigation of the room, we began our trek back up the hill.

Instead of taking the same path back to Administration, we took a different path to Ytterboe. Various parts of the tunnel were wet from ground water that had seeped in.

Our journey beneath St. Olaf had come to an end. We exited the tunnels and entered another utility room. The sauna-like environment inside the tunnels warranted walking back to Administration above the surface.

Although the tunnels offer students a chance to temporarily escape from the realities on the Hill, several dangers are present as well. The administration's decision to bar students from using the tunnels is done in an effort to minimize the chance of injury from a burst pipe or high voltages.

Even some of the student tunnel experts I talked to regarding the tunnels admitted to the dangers below. "Stuff can happen down there. It's not safe," I was told by a tunnel connoisseur.

The mystical aura surrounding the tunnels had finally lifted. Unfortunately, nearly all of the rumors and legends passed down over the generations were instantly proven untrue. The much-discussed and seldom seen St. Olaf tunnels are one case where fiction trumps fact.





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