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October, 2000

Steam Tunnels

Originally from Moments by Valerie, a collection of memories (1961-1983), written in 1986 and presented to Larry on their first anniversary.

Vicky & Valerie with schnauzers, Dec., 1961, Illinois.
My sister and I decided to be explorers one January night at the University of Illinois. We had discovered an opening to the mysterious steam tunnel system that ran under the entire university and heated its buildings. As we descended the ladder, the temperature rose and never fell below 80°F during our entire trip, although it was below freezing outside. What confronted us was a huge maze of various types of corridors. The main routes were square and had bare light bulbs every few feet. The massive steam pipes hissed and rattled, sometimes allowing a jet of steam to burst forth from a leak. There were some tunnels so straight and long that they seemed to be out of a science fiction movie. We periodically climbed ladders up to surface vents to note our location. The contrast of two worlds was really something! We went through various doors, up and down ladders, ramps, and steps, and entered the basements of several buildings. Some passages were low and we had to stoop down to get through, and some had ankle-deep water. The temperature once got so hot I couldn't touch my metal-framed glasses.

There had been other expeditions down there before us and they had drawn maps, arrows, and various graffiti on the walls, much in the tradition of spelunkers. We followed arrows to "cool rooms" - vents to the surface, or could tell that a certain corridor led to the main library.

Eventually, we turned down one tunnel that was much older than the rest, being made of dark bricks and arched at the top. It was dimmer and smelled much more cave-like but was still hot. At the end of the tunnel was a brick wall and on it was scrawled "Welcome to Hell."

Brick wall by Finla.