Is there really a maze of steam tunnels beneath the University of Chicago?

[flickr]photo:3495729961[/flickr]

U. of C. steam plant – photo by Eric Allix Rogers

[This piece originally ran in Time Out Chicago.]

Q: I heard there’s a maze of tunnels that leads from the University of Chicago’s steam plant under the Midway to many of the campus’ spooky Gothic masterpieces. Can I take my sweetie down there to get steamy?

A: Sorry, the golden age of steam-tunnel spelunking is over. These passageways, which can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, are used to maintain pipes that transport heat from the steam plant at 6101 South Blackstone Avenue to a number of the university’s older buildings, says U. of C. spokesman Bill Harms. In the April ’99 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, plant assistant manager Mike DeSoto reported finding beer bottles and graffiti in the tunnels and that it was common to catch students exploring the labyrinth in the dead of night.

U. of C. alum Russell Mast, a former student-government vice president, recalls sneaking into the tunnels in ’91 via a grate by the Divinity School (1025 E 58th St). “We crept drunkenly through the hot darkness for a long time, until we saw some light from above,” says Mast. “We figured we must have gone a mile but we came up in the tennis courts, only a block and a half away.” Steam plant manager Dan Carey says the entrances were secured with locked gates a few years ago, so you’ll have to save your make-out session for the sauna.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

6 thoughts on “Is there really a maze of steam tunnels beneath the University of Chicago?”

  1. I remember a steam tunnel voyage when I was an undergrad. Had the same sense of travelling for miles only to discover it was a few hundred feet. Way too hot to score down there. I can attest to scoring in the Regenstein stacks.

  2. John, are you familiar with the tunnel system at Disney parks? They’re used to ferry around materials and “cast members” (staff) use them to get to their staging areas without having to pass through the park. 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilidor#Utilidors_at_Walt_Disney_World
    “According to modern legend, Walt Disney was bothered by the sight of a cowboy walking through Disneyland’s Tomorrowland enroute to his post in Frontierland.[1] He felt that such a sight was jarring, and detracted from the guest experience. When the Florida park was being planned, engineers designed utilidors to keep park operations out of guests’ sight.”

    Does University of Chicago or any other school use tunnels for transporting people or things like Disney?

  3. IIT has transportation tunnels similar to the Loop’s Pedway. They connect most of the buildings there, but, at least when I attended classes there ten years ago, more and more of them were being locked to the public, for safety and anti-vandalism reasons. Of course, that just made cutting the chains and sneaking in at night alluringly verboten.

  4. Back in my caving days, (1970s thru 1980s) , we had a core of club members who were students or employees at U of C. The student bookstore used to sell t-shirts with a map of the steam tunnel system on the front.

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