The UW-Madison steam tunnels run all over campus, but you don’t need to be called Jones and have a state as your first name to know about them. Hold on to your brown fedora, get your whip ready: There’s plenty of excitement and intrigue to be found right here in Madison.

But not just any student can venture deep below the mundane world of crosswalks, classrooms and migrating student mobs.

The purpose of this underworld of scalding hot pipes laced with cobwebs is to supply campus buildings with steam heat and water cooling. Although the system may seem a bit archaic, sources say it beats running separate heating systems for all of the many buildings on campus. Similar systems are used in Europe, as well as on other U.S. college campuses.

According to Kevin Corcoran, steamfitting shop supervisor, the tunnel system consists of two sets of tunnels that extend from Memorial Library to the Weisman Center and from University Avenue to Lake Mendota. They are supplied with steam by the central heating plant on Charter Street and by a supplemental plant on Walnut Street.

The tunnels connect with UW history rather early–the first were dug out in the late 1800s. These, as well as a maze of expansions that appeared in subsequent years, continue to serve heat and water to this day, and once carried electricity and data cables. Some tunnels have been closed up to become tombs for the ghosts of the past, such as the one that crosses beneath Langdon Street going to the Red Gym.

Campus steam tunnel stories still abound. One is that a tunnel once ran from Bascom Hall all the way to the Capitol. Corcoran said this legend is false. Although the Capitol does have its own set of underground heating tunnels, they do not connect with those of the UW campus.

Another bit of lore concerns a local referred to as “Steam Tunnel Bob,” who has become a legendary subterranean character. Corcoran said Tunnel Bob explores the tunnels of Madison and Milwaukee frequently, and in doing so has also been arrested.

Rumor has it that Tunnel Bob lives below campus to change the light bulbs of the tunnels, and play flashlight tag with other homeless people in the dark.

Some say Tunnel Bob may be found regularly at State Street coffee shops. According to students, he’s the “tall skinny guy with the blue coat.”

The steam tunnels have often been the target of adventurous students, some of whom have even attempted to map the tunnel system.

James LaLuzerne, UW graduate of 1969, recalls using the tunnels to get to class when the weather was poor.

An account of exploration from a current undergraduate summed up the tunnels as “very frightening, dusty, and without much room.” This student, who wished to remain anonymous, entered the tunnels in front of Chadborne Hall in February 2001, and could only remain for 10 minutes before realizing that the tunnels were “not a healthy environment.”

He also said he worried that lurkers in the dark could see his flashlight while he could not see them. The student reported a room full of dirty blankets, which he suspected belonged to homeless people.

“I felt like I was on the ship from the movie ‘Alien’,” the student said.

Anyone who finds a way into the tunnels, which Corcoran works to keep locked, could find one of many dangers. Besides the threat of bruises and scrapes from the cluttered tunnel anatomy or the risk from overabundant asbestos, a burst pipe would mean serious burns. If a main steam pipe were damaged, as occurred in 1979, steam would escape at 9,000 feet per second at 430 degrees.

Aside from health risks, there are legal consequences for entering the tunnels. Sgt. Edie Brogan, patrol sergeant for the UW Police, says that two officers are in charge of keeping the steam tunnels secure.

If apprehended and charged under the UW administration code, the fine for trespassing is $151, and if convicted under the state statute, the fine jumps to $213. The choice of charge used depends on the circumstances of the violation.
“Anyone caught in the tunnels will be charged; they won’t just get a slap on the wrist,” Brogan said.