In the belly of the beast

Over the last two days, I’ve discovered the Caltech steam tunnel system. Caltech has a reputation for having a large and interesting tunnel system (see Real Genius), and now that I’ve seen about two thirds of it, I can say it’s fully justified.

The steam tunnels contain pipes running from the physical plant all over campus for use in heating and cooling, as well as various other piping and cabling. This means that they go to virtually every building. Unfortunately, not all buildings have doors that can be opened or unlocked, but it’s still great for getting into all sorts of interesting places.

Yesterday I happened to find a 1996 map of the tunnels online, and an entrance that my South Master key opens. The map is pretty good, but I’ve found a fair number of tunnels not on it — mostly near newer buildings, or behind doors that I found open, but which were clearly locked when the map was made. There is still the northeast part of campus that I’ve not been to yet, but the rest I’ve explored fairly well.

It’s obvious that students have been wandering the tunnels for years. The walls and pipes are covered with writing (this one is particularly moving), poems, warnings, coded symbols, and artwork, from many decades (“Impeach Nixon” appears in a few places). Add to that the clicks and hisses of the pipes, the sound of huge machines all around and the stifling heat in some sections, and it feels a world away from the campus above. Some of the highlights:

  • A room down an access ladder, labelled with “Hell”, and “Beware of the leopard”, and furnished with table, chair, and some pretty crazy graffiti. Historically a target of Harvey Mudd College students, infiltrating Caltech.
  • A long-abandoned matress and pair of denim jeans, under an external grating, off the Noyes physical plant room. Perhaps people have lived in the tunnels?
  • Main physical plant — huge generators in a warehouse. I didn’t explore it too thoroughly, as it looked like there might have been people about.
  • Geology rock storage area. Though see the disclaimer below.
  • South houses — these are midway through renovation now, so the plaster-board walling and ceilings have been pulled down in places. It’s amazing to see how the “rooms” and “corridors” are really just plaster-board constructions embedded in much bigger spaces in the buildings — often at bizarre angles to one another. There are also vast catacombs under the buildings, only a portion of which makes up the Student Activities Centre.
  • A computer graveyard, at the end of a rubble-filled and pitch black deadend, behind an old wooden door. The end of the tunnel is blocked off with black plastic bags, with a sign that says something like “2006 frosh [first years] only”. I need to explore it when I have more light than just my cellphone screen.

So yes, I can now get into a lot of the buildings on campus at any time of day or night. I’ll also give anyone who’s interested a tour around*. In the meantime, here’s a photo tour, with pics of a lot of the graffiti.

* Disclaimer: I’ve just seen this post. Oops. I’ve been through the round tunnels and the geology rock store. But I don’t believe the rocks were radioactive.

26 thoughts on “In the belly of the beast

  1. Many students protested strenuously when they realised the South House renovation would affect the network of tunnels below those houses. When I did my own exploration years ago, that was the neatest part of the whole thing less because of the graffiti (the walls in that area were less suitable for artwork) and more because of the nonlinear nature of the place (lots of climbing and split level tunnels, etc).

    Also, the main physical plant is guarded by cameras (inside that warehouse) and motion detectors (in the tunnels leading up to the place). One of the motion detectors does work. Just so you know. 🙂


  2. If you can get away from the guards just by flashing your ID, as mentioned in that link, maybe you should just go up to the cameras and show them your ID as if you belong there and they’ll leave you alone.


  3. Well, there were no warning signs anywhere, or shielding. There was a ladder, so obviously people use it to pick up the samples, which they wouldn’t do if it was radioactive. Surely, right?


  4. Well no…geologists are known for not having the warning signs up. Besides, many make the mistake of assuming that if they don’t contain Uranium, then they aren’t radioactive. But they could have been made to be radioactive by a method such as Neutron Activation. I’ve worked in a lab overseas where there were such samples, with little warning signs…and here we don’t signpost our radioactive samples either…


  5. Doh. Mmmm, well luckily they’re about to invent a cure for cancer.

    Hey, live life to the fullest, as I always say! Or, at least, as I say when I’m not feeling lazy!


  6. What’s going on with the steam tunnel photos tour site? How come it’s not working?

    I hope it’s not permenent! I hope it will come back on in a few days.


  7. Judging by the link, it’s someone who is (was) at the University of Chicago. They may have moved on since. I don’t know anything more than that.


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