IU's underground

IU's underground
January 28, 2009
Whitney Mitchell

Deep beneath IU’s campus is an underground world that many have heard of but few have experienced. It’s possible to walk from Third Street to the Indiana Memorial Union without seeing the light of day or to enter buildings in the Old Crescent undetected.

Commonly known as “the tunnels”, the underground passage system was created for utility purposes, but IU students have made them something of legend throughout the years.

They were constructed more than 100 years ago and now carry steam lines, voice and data communications, medium and high voltage and chilled water for air conditioning purposes, said Jeff Kaden, an engineer for the IU Physical Plant. Though the tunnels are unsafe, some IU students have made it their prerogative to discover this underground campus.

“These tunnels are extremely dangerous and are in no ways meant for pedestrian use,” Kaden said. “It’s extremely hot and the air is full of asbestos. There are sharp corners of piping and support. There are some places where the piping isn’t even covered and you could easily get burns or other injuries.”

The underground experience

The threat of death, electrocution or other injury, along with the possible arrest for trespassing and vandalism, have been no deterrent to some daring IU students.

“We’d heard about it and a group of us thought it’d be fun to go down there one night and see what it was all about,” said Chris, a sophomore who wished not to use his real name for this story. “Probably not the safest idea.”

Chris and five of his friends used the entrance near Swain Hall East to gain access to the tunnels. He said it was reasonably well lit because some parts of the tunnels do have lighting, yet he said they had no sense of where they were in relation to campus. Though some parts of the tunnel has ceilings high enough to comfortably accommodate people, other parts are notably narrow and small.

“At one point, it was literally a foot high and we had to pull ourselves on the ground to get through,” Chris said. “It was disgusting.”

The group also had to wade through knee-high water, edge through narrow corridors and duck pipes hanging overhead. It took them more than 45 minutes to make their way from Swain Hall East to the Union.

Despite these challenges it was the heat that eventually drove them out.

“We were so hot we just couldn’t handle it anymore, so we went out the exit at the Union because it was the first one we saw,” Chris said. “Some guy on a (Gator) saw us and started chasing us so we went to Kilroys and hid.”

But getting away from the heat wasn’t the group’s only motivation for exiting at the Union – there was no where else for them to go.

“The tunnel split in several different directions in the Union and there was a big room that was a doorway out,” said Stephen, a sophomore who accompanied Chris. Stephen also requested his real name not be used. “There wasn’t really anywhere else to go.”

Chris said gaining access to the tunnels was hardly a challenge because the bolts had been removed. Oddly enough, John – who also requested his real name not be used, but was not affiliated with Chris’ group, reported that people he went with used bolt cutters to get in.

“There’s no way anyone could get in these things without using a bolt cutter. They are locked and secured and by no means accessible,” Kaden said. “We have had problems in the past with this and it’s only a source of irritation and irresponsibility. Why anyone feels this is an entertaining vehicle is beyond me.”

The legends

While Kaden might be baffled, the tunnels have long held an allure for many.

“The tunnels are not just fascinating for students, but staff, faculty and the community,” said Rhonda Dass-Wilen, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. “They represent a liminal space – something outside of our ordinary daily life that is transitional and a common site for hauntings.”

Dass-Wilen notes two paranormal legends that have long been associated with the tunnels.

Supposedly, a girl in a yellow nightgown haunts the tunnel. Dass-Wilen said she was strangled by her boyfriend and he threw her body in the tunnel. According to the myth, the ghost is still lurking on campus looking for revenge.

If legend holds true, she might have some company.

“An older legend is that of a poor elephant that was being transported through Indiana by circus trainers. It died during an accident being uploaded from the freight car,” Dass-Wilen said. “The body of the elephant was given to IU for research but it mysteriously disappeared. It’s reported that the remains were hidden in the tunnels by animal activists wishing to preserve the body.”

Stephen said he didn’t see the ghost of a girl or a dead elephant during his time in the tunnel, but he did find evidence of another rumor.

“The entire time we were walking, we’d hear these crazy noises out of nowhere, probably from the steam pipes,” he said. “You’d turn a corner and there would be these loud noises and you’d think someone was working down there or it was some homeless guy.”

The rumor that homeless people live in the tunnels is not all that far-fetched. While campus police haven’t caught students roaming the tunnels, officers have found homeless people living and storing belongings there, said IU Police Department Captain Jerry Minger.

“(The tunnels) are warm and provide some sort of shelter, and while we are sympathetic to their cause, it’s not the time, place or manner to support the homeless community on a college campus,” he said.

Another long-standing myth is associated with the old Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on 10th Street. There are different versions of the tale, but some have said that past fraternity pledges were hazed in the tunnels. This is impossible because the tunnels don’t even reach 10th Street.

“If there are tunnels in that area, they certainly aren’t accessible at all, not even by IU Physical Plant workers,” Kaden said. “There’s no way for someone to get from Third Street to 10th Street using these tunnels.”

The dangers

Kaden emphasized the real danger that these tunnels pose. Although there have been no reported injuries among students, trained physical plant workers have received steam burns while working below. Because of the steam, some places can reach 286 degrees, and the air in the tunnel can shoot up to 130 degrees, Kaden said.

Only workers well-versed in the hazards of the tunnel are legally permitted in them, so there aren’t signs marking high voltage areas.

“It scares me and I go down there as little as possible,” Kaden said. “I guess it’s just the thrill of danger, but anyone who feels that this is a source of entertainment is putting themselves in jeopardy.”

Some tunnel explorers have found that IU’s underground wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I’d heard all this great stuff about it from some older people, hidden treasure and all that, but it’s nothing special,” John said. “It’s kind of funny to tell people it is though.”

The IU Physical Plant maintains that they will take action against all whom they find trespassing or vandalizing the tunnels.

“This is not a place where students need to be exploring the University,” Kaden said. “They need to be doing that at the library."
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