Going underground

Just last year, in a psychology of women class, Portland State students listened as a woman told of her journey from homelessness back into the world of academics. The story was inspiring: a homeless woman manages to earn her G.E.D. years after leaving school, works hard to get a job, and eventually makes it here, at college.

Possibly the most intriguing part of her journey, however, involvedwhere she took up residence for part of her homeless life: the underground tunnels at Portland State. The woman, in her early thirties, claimed that she would enter the tunnel system in the evenings through an unknown entrance, sleep there during the night, and re-emerge in the morning.

During her stay in the tunnels, the woman claimed that she heard unusual noises. On one particular evening, the woman claimed that she heard a janitor near her pushing a broom. When she got up to look, however, no one was around. Her secret refuge was cut short, however, when she returned to her entrance one night, only to find it locked.

As recently as three years ago, Kimberly McClain from the university studies department learned of an employee working in admissions and records who claimed to live in the tunnels under Neuberger Hall. According to McClain, the employee made it a point to attend parties and social gatherings on campus, sneak away large amounts of food and go back to his room in the tunnel.

Although no one knows how long the employee lived in the tunnels, the rumored tenancy apparently went on for quite some time.

In October 1999, a man claiming to be the leader of an underground commune of approximately 20 students, approached university officials attempting to convince them to support the commune after he graduated. This is one of many underground communes rumored to have been located in the subterranean passages.

What’s going on down there?

Not many students are aware of the intricate underground tunnel system that connects many of the buildings on campus. Of those students who have heard of the tunnels, most are unsure of their exact purpose.

What really goes on underneath the feet of students and faculty in the underground passage? Intent on discovering what all the secrecy was about, we set out on a tour with our gracious guide, Richard Koontz of the energy management team, that began in the basement of Cramer Hall.

When we entered the first tunnel space, we were immediately hit with a wall of mind-numbing heat that would only get worse as the tour continued. In that first room, parts from a chiller system sat carefully placed on the ground – a repair job cut off half way through. Brian O’Sullivan, another member of the energy management team, explained that after the school discovered the work would cost upwards of $60,000, the 1965 system was officially retired.

As we made our way through the room filled with heavy machinery, pipes of all sizes, nozzles, gauges and valves, our voices were nearly drowned out by the roar coming from the equipment. In addition to the chiller system, the area contains five steam boilers and a generator for the telecommunications room.

Hot and deafened, we struggled to listen as Koontz and O’Sullivan explained the intricate system of heating, cooling, electrical and data transportation that travels through the tunnel system. Both tour guides were skeptical of our queries about secret tenants, ghosts and hide-a-ways, claiming ignorance, but they humored us throughout the excursion.

From Cramer, Koontz and O’Sullivan led us toward Science Building 1 in a tunnel that runs under the sidewalk of the Park blocks, past Plaid Pantry and into the sub-basement; the sheer length of the tunnel was both intimidating and awesome.

Crouching under pipes and climbing over ducts, Koontz and O’Sullivan attempted to explain how the cooling systems between Science Buildings 1 and 2 work together. As I scrambled to jot down the details and keep up with Koontz, I narrowly avoided being struck unconscious by overhead pipes that were not so over-head.

As we neared the end of the tunnel, Koontz in the lead followed by myself, the photographer and O’Sullivan, Koontz casually switched off the lights.

Surrounded by darkness, both the photographer and I found ourselves frightened for the first time. With no natural lighting, the tunnel was pitch black and all that could be heard was the constant rumbling of machines in the distance and Koontz chuckling up ahead.

With the lights back on, we found ourselves at a ladder that leads down to the sub-basement of Science Building 1, where Koontz showed us a small chiller and the ventilation system for the building. After climbing up the ladder again, we began walking back toward Cramer, but stopped above an iron grate laid into the ground.

The dark heart of the campus

Looking down into the darkness, Koontz explained that this was our passage to Science Building 2 as O’Sullivan lifted the grate. With a look of disbelief, we followed Koontz down the ladder into another room containing a reverse osmosis unit for purifying lab water, hot water heaters and electrical generators.

As we walked through the room in awe, O’Sullivan showed us the emergency generators for both science buildings, which ensure that health lamps and fans for scientific experiments in the labs will remain on in case of a power outage.

Turning a corner, we stopped in front of the first (and only) pipe into which we could see. As we watched water trickling in from tubes on the left and right being funneled into one clear, vertical tube, Koontz explained that the water contained acid waste. “The lab waste is just assumed to be acidic,” he said. The water that comes from the labs goes through the tubing and out to a neutralizing tank on the east side of the building where a pH probe is done to determine acidity. Sodium bicarbonate – better known as baking soda – is then pumped in to neutralize the water before it goes out to the city sewer system.

Nearing the end of the room, O’Sullivan pointed out the newest chiller system. Installed in winter 98-99, a concrete slab had to be removed from the ceiling in order to drop the machine down. The chiller was lowered onto skates in order to maneuver it around the corner, and according to O’Sullivan they made it in with only inches to spare.

Our last stop in Science building 2 was at the transfer switch where 12,500 volts of electricity are dispersed throughout campus. According to O’Sullivan, the campus electricity bill averages more than $78,000 per month – enough to supply power to over 4300 homes in America at an average of $108 per month, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Leaving the tunnel and entering the cold, rainy world of Portland again after over an hour of exploration was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment. We all agreed to finish the remainder of the tour another day.

Joined only by Koontz, we began the second leg out our tour in Cramer and headed south toward Smith Memorial Center. Following the electrical, data and telephone wires along with the yellow and blue pipes, we entered the sub-basement tunnel.

For the first time on the tour, we encountered familiar sites: food racks, recycling bins, soda syrup boxes, tables, chairs and other items cluttered the space that appeared more like a storage unit than a mysterious tunnel.

Some sections were cordoned off with chain-link fencing to secure stored items, while other items sat strangely out of place and unprotected. In one corner, an old, rusted barbecue sat alone, leaving us wondering if it might have been a relic left over from one of the previous “tenants.” As we made our way past the boxes of light bulbs and toward the end of Smith Center, we approached a door bearing a large “Caution – High Voltage” sign. As Koontz opened the door, he explained that although we could not travel through it, the tunnel does go all the way through to Neuberger Hall.

Koontz led us out a door and we were surprised to find ourselves in the sub-basement of Smith Center looking at the familiar hallway that leads to student publications. The entrance back into the ‘real’ world was surreal; students passed us with curious glances as we followed Koontz into another door in Neuberger labeled “Boiler Room.”

Mysterious artifacts

When we entered this new underground passage, we stumbled upon a pile of dried leaves. “Well, this might be a sign of your mysterious inhabitant,” Koontz said. “I don’t know where these could have come from.” Our curiosity piqued, we followed a trail of leaves hoping to make a grand discovery. Instead, we found an air vent with its screen on the ground. Disappointed once again.

Turning around, we headed through a cramped space, filled with more pipes and wires. Even fully lit, the chamber felt more like a tomb than a tunnel. The air became increasingly damp and dense as we walked, the humidity creating small droplets of sweat on our foreheads.

As we neared the end of the tunnel, we could detect a high-pitched hissing sound growing louder as we walked. “Sounds like we have a leak,” said Koontz. Sure enough, near the doorway we could see drops of water on the ground and steam flowing out of a minute crack in the seal.

Leaving Neuberger, we headed through the newest tunnel on campus. Built in the late 1980s, the passage led us right into Shattuck Hall. As quickly as we entered, we found ourselves at a ladder, at the top of which was a hatch.

Koontz took the lead, unlatching the door, pushing it open and climbing through. As we got to our feet, we found ourselves inside the first floor of Shattuck, surrounded by – of all things – wood.

“This is one of the graduate studios where graduate students work on thesis projects,” said Koontz. Sure enough, we stumbled upon a graduate student on our way out the door. Although she appeared calm, I asked if she was surprised to see us.

“No,” she said. “Workers come up out of there all the time.”

Unfortunately for us, she had never known or heard of any graduate students living in the tunnels. Koontz reminded us and assured the student that the tunnels are secured and anyone in the passages must have keys to get around. We bid our new friend goodbye and headed out the door.

Koontz spent some time showing us relics of another age at Shattuck: an old boiler system, a retired vacuum system, and – most impressive – the filled-in swimming pool that now acts as a storage room for old theater props, aging computers, ancient easels and countless other items.

Leaving Shattuck out the west doors, we walked across the lawn of the Park Blocks and headed toward the Peter S. Stott Center. The fresh air was welcome but the glaring sun disorienting. Before we knew it, we were back inside headed into another corridor.

This passage was not like the other tunnels, however. Lint lined the floor and walls, hung from the ceiling and pipes. Wide and spacious, under other circumstances this tunnel might have been the most reassuring of them all, but the humidity in our lungs and the softness under our feet stole that comfort away. The smell of laundry detergent, coming from the athletic laundry room, replaced the smell of oil and natural gas. As we neared the end of tunnel, we passed an iron gate, sunlight gleaming through the lint that covered it from top to bottom. Stairs led from the gate up to ground level, but we kept walking – away from the light.

The passage at the Stott Center is slightly different than many of the others; it runs along the side of the building and, because of the way the building was built, the ground comes up around the tunnel. So while our elevation never changed, we soon found ourselves traveling under the sidewalk to the West Heating Plant.

Here, the most impressive, imposing, tremendous boiler on campus is located. As we looked through a small peephole at one end of the boiler, flames shot up in front of our eyes, licking the sides of the cauldron. Koontz explained that the boiler heats water and creates steam, which is sent out for heat; after the steam is used, it becomes condensation, returns to the boiler and is reheated.Although intrigued by the machine and its sheer size, I was anxious to escape the heat and found myself relieved when Koontz was ready to go.

We exited the heating plant via a side door. Again in the open space, we walked past the west section of the playing field. “If you ever notice in the winter, this part of the field never gets snow to stick,” Koontz said. “That’s because there are steam pipes that run underneath the field to other buildings and it keeps the ground warm enough to melt all the snow.”

Watching the soccer players kick the ball around on the field, the sun shining on them, we followed Koontz down a set of stairs at Stott Center. We entered the tunnel through the daunting iron gate we passed earlier – only, from the outside it just looked like a dirty iron gate.

At the bottom of the stairs, the heat came over us again as we headed toward the library sub-basement. Down two flights of extremely steep metal stairs, we entered the library.

By far the most spacious and cleanest area we perused, the sub-basement had a ceiling of what seemed like 25 ft., with a patchwork of pipes all color-coded: blue for chilled water, yellow for steam, orange for hot water, and red for the fire sprinklers. Although the pipes are coded throughout the tunnels, staring up at the ceiling of the library seemed more like looking at a rainbow on LSD.

We walked past old library curtains, boxes and books into a small room Koontz referred to as “command central.” Situated atop a small desk with an old chair was what would now be considered an ancient computer with a DOS operating system. This computer links into the energy management system that Koontz and O’Sullivan use to monitor all the systems on campus.

Return to the surface

Back at the facilities office, Koontz’ computer – equipped with sophisticated mapping and graphics systems – is the main terminal for the energy management system and allows Koontz to regulate each building’s steam pressure, boiler system, chiller system, water system, electric consumption and more.

Leaving the sub-basement of the library, we called the service elevator and exited the building through the south side service entrance, officially ending our tour of the Portland State underground tunnel system.

By the time we re-entered civilization, the urban legends, ghost stories and rumors had nearly left my mind entirely as I attempted to absorb everything we had seen. Somewhat disappointed that we had been spared a rat sighting or two – Koontz emphatically declared that he had never seen any rodents in the tunnels – we were still amazed at the intricate system of the campus utilities and the complex arrangement of the tunnels that connect us all.