Graduation Bucket List: The Tunnels

Students discover the big secret about what really lies beneath CMU in the tunnels.

If you were to go around campus asking people “have you heard about the underground tunnels?”  I’m positive that you will get some very unique responses.

They might even sound like this:

  1. “Oh yeah the tunnels! I heard that a kid went down there, back in the day, and died. His ghost haunts some of the halls on campus.”
  1. “I really want to go see them, I heard that students used to use them all the time to travel from class to class but there was some sort of incident, I think someone was raped, so no more students were allowed down there.”
  1. “Some say that if you even think about stepping foot into them that you will get expelled.”

While these are just a few of the traditional tales told around campus, there are various other accusations that have been floating around about the existence of the tunnels.

Fortunately, The Graduation Bucket List was able to take a tour of the tunnels on April 26, 2010; thanks to our Pixie Challenge partner-in-crime, Dean of Students, Bruce Roscoe. He was able to get us to the right people who told us that we would be the only students to be getting a tour of the infamous tunnels.

Pure excitement was visible in our eyes as we walked into the Power building. Ask any CMU student what they want to do before they graduate and I can guarantee one thing on their list would be to go see the tunnels. With cameras in our hands, we were ready to find out if these myths about the tunnels were really fact or fiction.

Each one of us had our own creative story of what we believed the tunnels to be, but before we could even step foot into the tunnels we got a quick study lesson on the creation and importance of these underground mysteries.

“Do you ever wonder where your hot water (on-campus) comes from for your showers, all those kinds of things, heating?” LeRoy Barnes, director of Plant Energy and Utilities said. “This building where we are is the Central Energy Facility and the reason why it is here is that we are here to provide those services to the campus for heating and for cooling.”

The heating system for CMU involves a couple of boilers, two of which are the original boilers that were put onto campus in 1961.

“We have two boilers that were put in during 1961 and then in about 1985; we added a wood chip boiler,” Barnes said. “The original boilers can burn several different types of fuel but right now we burn natural gas with these boilers.”

A little bit of disappointment set in our minds as we all realized that the only thing that the tunnels were ever created for was electricity, heating and cooling. Yet, even though we all knew this, we were still very excited to see what the tunnels actually looked like.

“What we are going to see (in the tunnels) is steam distribution that goes to the campus and the distribution piping goes to about 90 percent of the buildings on campus; we have about 3 and 3/4 miles of steam tunnel,” Barnes said.

After learning what the steam tunnels were used for, some of us had questions that we wanted to ask.

“I heard the tunnels were used to store documents from the capital?” Spenser Sydow asked cleverly.

“I thought that students used to use them to travel from class to class?” I added.

Steve Lawrence, the Central Energy Facility associate vice president of Facilities Management, gave out a good hearty laugh to Spenser’s question and told us that no student has ever used the tunnels as transportation from building to building.

A common facial expression set over our faces. It was as if we were all thinking the same thing at the same time, which was REALLY…the tunnels are only used for primary needs such as heating and cooling. No ghosts, no terrible tragedies leading to more ghosts, and not even a trace of capital documents.

What we did learn was that the wood boiler produces about 50,000lbs per hour of steam and it burns about 40,000 tons of wood chips per year. We also found out that it is more cost efficient to burn wood even though Central’s electric bill last year was still extremely high, 4.5 million dollars.

After the lesson, Mark Blanzy, the supervisor utilities/operations of Facilities Management at the Central Energy Facility, took all five of us down to the tunnels.

What people would not expect about the tunnels is that it is not at all cool or damp it is like going into a sauna, very hot and humid. Another thing is that the tunnels are about 6 feet tall and only 5 feet wide. Blanzy did not show us all three miles of the tunnels but we saw enough to really understand what they are used for.

Even though we graduate in a week and we only accomplished a few things on our list, going to see the tunnels, regardless of them being used only for heating, was one of the most unforgettable things that we will have ever done at Central.