The steam tunnels: behind our underground tradition

By TED TAK and JAMES SCHARF | November 15, 2018

Several students have accessed the tunnels by following maps that are posted on the website, Reddit.

“Under the cradle of knowledge lies the bones of those that have fallen.”

These are the words that Jack, a student who chose to remain anonymous, reported seeing written on the walls of the steam tunnels underneath Homewood Campus. 

The University’s Student Code of Conduct prohibits “the unauthorized or improper use or misuse of University property, facilities, resources, or services,” including entering the steam tunnels, which are intended for utility distribution and not student use. Nonetheless, many students, like Jack, venture underground to explore them. 

The News-Letter granted anonymity to current students who may face disciplinary action for violating the Code of Conduct.

Class of 2009 alumnus David Rose explained why students throughout the decades continue to be drawn to the tunnels, which were originally built in 1914.

“The lore and the idea that it’s forbidden might be more important than the actual ramifications. I kind of like the mythology of ‘if you go into the steam tunnels then you can never talk about it,’” he said. “I like the idea that the steam tunnels are kind of like Fight Club.”

Both Rose and Jack identified Reddit as one of the main resources that students can use to figure out how to enter the steam tunnels and determine where the tunnels lead. Through a thread on the website dedicated entirely to the Homewood tunnels, any member of the public can easily access detailed maps of the tunnels and their entrances.

Jack, who researched the tunnels before entering them, remembered reading an article that pointed him specifically to one of the tunnels underneath Latrobe Hall.

“The article that I read was talking about this thing called the Computer Room underneath Latrobe, where some guy said that he went there in 1980 and saw this computer that was just sitting there alone,” he said. “There was a terminal running and just blinking, late at night, underneath Latrobe.”

Jack added that everything that the article described was accurate, and he described an air of mystery in the room that the tunnel led him and his friends to.

“It was eerily lit by some light above. It looks like a torture chamber. And there’s this broken computer sitting there, surrounded by beer cans,“ Jack said. “It was really disturbing.”

Rose explained that there are two kinds of tunnels that span the area underneath Homewood: steam tunnels and maintenance tunnels.

“There are actually two tunnels. One is a series of maintenance tunnels — you’ll see a series of workers there. They’re less dangerous,“ he said. “Then, there are steam tunnels, which are used in some instances.”

He added that although the steam tunnels were more dangerous, during his time at Hopkins, graduate students were occasionally allowed inside.

“In some instances, some grad students were given permission to enter them to keep their work away from anywhere else,” Rose said. “There are some which are narrow, very hot, cramped or dirty.”

Originally used to transport utilities from the campus power plant to other buildings on campus, the network of tunnels is now mainly used for maintenance, according to David Ashwood, senior director of plant operations at Johns Hopkins Facilities and Real Estate (JHFRE).

He explained that the tunnels are currently used for utility distribution systems, transporting water, steam and electricity to locations around campus.

Ashwood, however, denied Rose’s reports that students were allowed in the steam tunnels. He cautioned students against entering, citing safety reasons.

“Students should never enter the utility tunnels,“ he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “These tunnels contain high pressure steam lines that can present extremely dangerous conditions if an unexpected leak occurs close to a person in a utility tunnel.”

Jack agreed that the steam tunnels pose definite safety risks. He stated that he has previously burnt himself severely inside the tunnels. However, he recommended that instead of avoiding the tunnels, students should plan and prepare for their visits underground.

“Make sure you go down with someone else and have a charged phone and a flashlight. Go slowly and understand where you’re going,” he said.

He urged students who decide to enter the tunnels to use the maps available on the internet to avoid getting lost in the web of tunnels.

“Make sure that people know you’re down there — reception isn’t great,“ Jack said. “If you don’t know your way, you could definitely get lost and be unable to get back to that one unlocked door that let you in.”

John, a current student who chose to remain anonymous, agreed that entering the steam tunnels can be risky.

“If something happens, you are totally underground and nobody can help you,” he said.

Similarly, alum Nate McIntosh, Class of 2018, understood why it was necessary for the University to discourage students from entering the tunnels. He noticed that various entrances to the steam tunnels were locked on a regular basis.

“I’m sure the school thinks that it’s much better if the students can’t get in and mess something up, because I’m sure that there are some important piping systems down there they can hurt themselves on,” he said.

Nevertheless, he did not believe that the tunnels were as dangerous as they seemed. To him, exploring them was worth the risk.

“There’s a few places where hot water drips out of pipes, but that’s about as hurt as you can get,” McIntosh said. “It’s fun to explore around, see what you can find, see if you can get into places.”

Class of 2018 alum Eli Pivo agreed, adding that there were many more ways in which students on a college campus could injure themselves. 

“I’ve definitely been injured more times outside the steam tunnels than inside them,” he said.

As a freshman, Pivo learned about the tunnels primarily through older students and by word of mouth. He added that this was how most students discovered them.

“The first time that I went to the steam tunnels was when my Pre-Orientation leader told me how to get in,” Pivo said. “It was mind-blowing and a big part of my freshman year.”

Pivo, a frequent visitor of the steam tunnels, found each visit uniquely memorable. During one particular trip that stood out to him, Pivo and his friends decided to communicate with deceased members of the Hopkins community.

“We decided to have a seance there, with six or seven other people, to commune with the dead,” he said. “We selected three ghosts that we would talk to. It was very successful.” 

The ghosts, Pivo said, included University founder Johns Hopkins; the mummy residing in the Archeological Museum; and the University’s first chemistry professor, Ira Remsen. 

According to Pivo, students use the tunnels for various unexpected purposes. 

“If your roommate is in your room and if there’s nowhere else to go, I’ve heard that people will occasionally take their hot young love into the steam tunnel for an evening of, you know, communing with their spirits,” he said.

During his trips into the tunnels, Pivo would frequently find beer cans lying around as well as graffiti on the walls. John agreed, adding that it was evident that the dark tunnels had seen years of students visiting.

“There was this one spot where a bunch of people had written their names on the wall,” John said.

Rose explained that the steam tunnels attract students not only because of their air of mystery but also because students hope to be part of a greater legacy. 

“Some students want to hold onto traditions and lore,” Rose said. “They want to do something a little out of the ordinary.”

Natalie Wallington contributed reporting.

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