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A Tour Of Steam Tunnels Beneath The Eastern Michigan University Campus

As we walk around college campuses in Washtenaw County, most of us usually just pay attention to what we see above ground.  But, have you ever thought about what lies beneath?  89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan wondered about that and, what he found underground at Eastern Michigan University is a series of steam tunnels. 

This adventure starts off in the conference room at Eastern Michigan University’s Physical Plant Building.

"This is the tunnel. It’s about 1.8 miles."

Bilal Sarsour is the Director of Facilities, Maintenance and Operations at Eastern.  He points to a map of the tunnels that run under the university like a spider web.  We’re joined by Mark Monarch, Manager of Technical/Mechanical Trades and Utilities.

We then take a short drive to the heating plant on campus and walk through the building’s mechanical room to get to a steam tunnel that connects to the main library. 

Mark looks for a key to open a gated door.  At this point, we’re in a warm, semi-lit area, but that changes when we enter the concrete tunnel that’s well lit with small individual lights.  They’re positioned about 20 feet apart from each other.

"The power house is the center. And all the steam is going through this tunnel to be distributed to multiple buildings on campus."

Mark goes on to say that’s 99 % of the buildings on campus use the steam for heat, hot water, and cooking.  The 8 ft. x 6 ft.  wide tunnel, with pipes on one side and a narrow pathway on the other, doesn’t look old, smell funny, or is nearly as loud as you would think.  That’s because this one was updated in 1998 when Halle Library was built.

But that all changes when we leave this tunnel and drive to another one, where the real fun begins.

Mark: "This is Ford Hall and this is an older tunnel. I mean, you have a wooden frame around the doorway."
Jorge: "It almost looks like Indiana Jones, doesn’t it?"

I joke around with Mark and Bilal as we go through the door.  It has a sign above it that reads, “Danger. Confined Space.  Keep Out,” but I guess it’s too late to turn around now.  Hunched over in less than 5'9 of space, we walk on wood panels because the eroded concrete floors are muddy due to water leaks.  Mark is upfront.

"Oh man, no one has been here. I’ve got cobwebs."

Minutes from a 1903 State Board of Education meeting reveal that nearly $47,000 were spent to build a tunnel system from the powerhouse to the science complex on campus.  However, Ford Hall wasn’t built until 1929.   Other minutes from 1911, 1912, and 1927 also reveal that over $180,000 were spent on tunnel extensions and a new heating plant. 

The Ford tunnel has brick walls and there are some lights in this tunnel as well, but it’s definitely a lot darker and warmer than the previous one we were in.  Bilal says it’s warmer because we’re closer to a mechanical room that has heavy machinery.

With a flashlight in hand, Mark kneels down to show me an opening on one of the tunnel walls.  It’s almost pitch black.

Mark: "This us under Ford Hall right here, these are the pillars and everything that supports Ford."
Jorge: "They look like catacombs."
Mark: "It’s does look like catacombs. It’s kind of cool."

Mark then shares a fun fact about an EMU building from the 1850's that no longer stands.  The information was unearthed when recent construction took place in this tunnel.

"It’s the Old Main Building. They found the foundation for what’s called the Old Main, and it was one of the original buildings for Eastern."

Maintenance workers are usually the only ones who come down to the tunnel system that’s up to eight feet underground.  But stories have been told that during the 1980’s.  Fans of Dungeons and Dragons sneaked in to play out their fantasies.  Since then, security has gotten a lot tighter, so don’t get any ideas about trying to travel the dark and hidden tunnels that lie beneath the surface of the EMU campus.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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