The Steam Tunnels Of SIU

By Bob Piet

Do they exist?

So back when I was a freshman, there were always rumors of these underground tunnels that connected the entire campus.  Back in University housing, I recall a few Resident Assistants (RA’s) outright denying their existence.  If this was an official University Housing policy to deny their existence, I can’t be sure.

The answer is, of course: they exist; the evidence is all over the place.  Walking along the sidewalks, you see the 2×4 vents, and if you look at them at the right angle, you can see right into the tunnel network.  You have the random small brick buildings that when you look at them they go straight down, such as the one in Thompson Point and by Old Main adjacent to the main walkway over to East Campus.  Additionally they do rupture from time to time making steam shoot out of the sidewalks or lawns like some alien planet.   My favorite though, is to wait for a day when there is just a light layer of snow on the ground.  The ambient heat from the steam tunnels will melt the snow and give you and instant tunnel network map.  Oh, and also they mention the tunnels on their website.

Why do they exist?

If you take a look at the Carbondale skyline, it is dominated by 4 structures: the first 3 being the Campus Towers and the fourth being the Physical Plant.  The Physical Plant is an actual registered coal-fired power plant (#57928 for those of you scoring at home).  Its steam generator burns on average about 4000 tons of coal a year. The steam generated by this not only powers about 14% of the University but is also superheated and sent through pipes to heat the University through the tunnel network.  The tunnel network also supplies chilled water to get your Thompson Point residence hall down to a nice 40 degrees during the hotter months.

My senior year I had befriended an RA a few floors down.  It was one of those years where it was unbelievably hot in late March.  Facility Operations Center (FOC) had not switched the university in to “summer” mode yet which means no air conditioning.  This RA, knowing I had advanced knowledge on how the University worked, asked me if I thought I could turn the AC on in our building.

I never turn down a challenge that involves me pushing buttons to find out what they do.  So we work our way down to the bottom, the basement of Kellogg Hall, and she keys me into a room I had ever been into.  I follow the pipes that supplied the water to all the heater/AC units in the building down to the end of this poorly lit room.  Stepping on the carcasses of dead cockroaches and other bugs native to the basements of SIUC, I followed the pipes to a control box. Luckily for us and the rest of the residents, the box was unlocked.

I opened it as quietly as I could, but the steel hinges wouldn’t have any of that.  Inside the box, two amber lights sat bisected by a giant almost comical switch.  The switch was pointing to the only illuminated amber light of the two.  There was just enough light in the room to make out the words “summer” and “winter” written in permanent marker above each of the amber lights.  The switch was pointing to the “winter” light, and I did the only obvious thing, which was move the switch into the “summer” position.

We both jumped at the sound of a motor spinning up.  Both amber lights illuminated followed by a red one on the bottom I didn’t notice before.  We bolted up back to the third floor of the residence hall and sat down at a community table at the far end of the hallway.  I really wasn’t sure what I had done.  Did flipping that switch send a signal to the FOC?  What if there was another step in the process that I was unaware of?  Could water be flooding somebody’s room right now, and was I responsible?  Within minutes I calmed myself down as I started hearing the sound of water slowly trickling through the pipes in the building.  As a four-year member of University Housing, I recognized that sound as the sound you heard when the FOC was switching “season modes” of the building.  My quest appeared to be successful.

So how did I know this? 

How did I get all this what seemed to be janitor-level knowledge?  Over the years I became what I referred to as a “tunnel tour guide”.  I gained preliminary information from casual conversation with upperclassmen and University Housing staff.  Towards the end of my freshman spring semester I realized that my student worker job gave me access to some remote areas of a specific university building.  One of the remote areas contained a lab where grad students did some rather dirty experiments.  While wandering this building one day I discovered that this lab had its own unlocked door to the tunnel network.  So I just kept the key to this lab all 4 years.  I am trying to recall what I did with this key.  I don’t remember giving it to somebody in some sort of “passing the torch” ritual when I graduated.  I wonder where it is right now – hell, it probably doesn’t even work anymore.

Steam tunnel 01

The tunnel that leads to tunnels

All throughout the rest of my time at SIUC I gathered a lot of knowledge on how the University works.  I would get pieces of information from University maintenance workers and put them together like a puzzle.  As a member of Residence Hall Association (RHA) and as WIDB’s Chief Engineer, I was on good terms with Housing’s Director of Facilities who provided me with a lot of information on how all the buildings are interconnected and worked.  I recall one specific time when the Facilities Director, myself, and the engineer from SPC-TV were in the cable TV head end room where all the cable channels were controlled from.  I took that time to remix our cable FM signal back into the University’s cable network.  SPC-TV’s signal ran (at the time) through a single RJ59 cable from the 4th floor of the Student Center through the tunnel network to the Communications Building, where it is modulated into the cable network.  The thought of one day hijacking their signal did cross my mind a few times.


The tunnel network is dangerous.  They contain superheated steam which means it is well over 220 degrees.  If one of those pipes burst and you were next to it, that pipe would cook you alive in an instant. I was in the tunnels with some WIDBers when we came across a section that had a small pinhole leak.  The specific area was filled with steam.  The temperature instantly rose to well over 100 degrees and everything was slick.  Also I wouldn’t be surprised if in some sections the steam pipes were insulated with asbestos.

Steam tunnel 02

 SIU or Ancient Egypt?

There are also points – if I recall the tunnels between Thompson Point and the Comm Building and tunnels between Thompson Point and the Lesar Law Building – where you do have to climb utility ladders that are over 10 feet tall.  If you lose your footing on those, you could very well break your leg.   There are also large valve wheels that randomly stick out that you could crack your head open on or trip over.  So needless to say, they are very dangerous.

There are gates that can be closed and locked preventing you from gaining access to the network.  I kept an eye on the location of the gates; they were mostly at intersections or near the entrances to larger buildings.  I never found any that didn’t have an exit to the surface through a manhole cover. However there is an urban legend of the FOC locking a specific section of the network, trapping a student down there.  He wasn’t found until it was too late.  I personally think this is just a story to keep students out.  First of all there are OSHA and state regulations that prohibit this kind of setup.  In addition, there are plenty of those 2×4 vents all over the network (perhaps also required by OSHA).  If I was stuck down there, I would have shouted up one of those vents until I was rescued.

 If you are going to do it, at least be safe

The idea of a secret underground world just beneath your feet just beckons people to gain access and explore.  When you factor in the myths and legends about nuclear bomb shelters and old research experiments being stored down there, it just makes it more enticing.  Being an Aviation major, we had safety and checklists drilled into our heads.
I created some for the tunnel exploring and never deviated from them.
That might have been the reason why I can only recall one close call with the FOC.
Here are the basic rules I followed:

1) Never go into the tunnels alone.  Aviation 101, always have a co-pilot.
2) Everybody is sober.  This should be a no-brainer.
3) Everybody brings their own flashlight.  You can signal each other with the  flashlights, and you have spares in the event one goes out.
4) Always go after midnight.  I used this rule because I knew the FOC was a 24-hour operation.  However I also knew like every University department, they had a budget and would have a skeleton staff after midnight.
5) Don’t cross the tracks.  There is one tunnel that goes under the railroad tracks, and that tunnel goes right underneath the Physical Plant which is where the FOC 24/7 monitoring facility is at.  Any of the random blogs buried deep in Google searches about the tunnels will give you this same warning.


My one close call with the FOC was rather quick and ended the tour that night abruptly.
I was with three other WIDBers and we were in the passage between Engineering and the Ag Building.  I had exited the tunnels through the Ag Building a few times and thought it would be a quick exit back to the surface like always. The Ag Building accessed the tunnel network from a utility room and was joined by a steel spiral staircase.  That night I went first, slowly walking up the spiral staircase into the Ag Building.  My senses became heightened immediately as there was an additional glow from a desk lamp about 4 feet from the staircase.  I saw the outline of a FOC employee sitting at the desk in the light of the lamp. My head was probably only 2 inches above the floor line when I instantly and quietly reversed direction down the stairs.  I turned off my flashlight and signaled the rest my groups to turn around.  We sped down the engineering shaft in the direction of the old arena.  Within minutes we were out a side entrance of the Engineering Building by campus lake.

I treated my tunnel exploring like a video game.  GoldenEye was the popular game at the time, and I treated the FOC employees like a Bond villain’s henchmen that you had to sneak around to prevent from getting caught.  From what I have read on the internet during random fits of boredom over the years is that if you get caught in the tunnels, two things can happen.  If you are a University Housing resident, then you just get sent to a disciplinary board hearing.  However, if you live off campus, the university charges you with criminal trespass.  Again as Abraham Lincoln says, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet”

Security Rumors

My freshman year, a fellow aviation major introduced me to the tunnel network.  He never took me down there, but I did learn a lot from his stories.  During some of my initial research into the tunnels – after I found out that I could easily access them through my student job – I was warned by some staffers that the tunnels were all secured with motion sensors and cameras.  I didn’t find much truth to these stories.  I didn’t believe these stories.  At the time, the university was having difficulty wiring the east side of campus to the internet.  Every department complains about not having enough money so would you expect me to believe that they paid to wire the tunnel network with motion sensors and cameras?

Now I never found any, and I was always keeping an eye out for security devices.  However that doesn’t mean they don’t have them today.  This stuff is a lot cheaper and smaller now, and back then Wi-Fi didn’t even exist.

There are so many other stories I would love to tell.  I also have great Student Center exploring stories, such as finding my way into the other fourth floor.   However at the risk of this becoming TL;DR I think I will have to leave you hanging.

Bob Piet 02

Bob “Carbondale Jones” Piet
WIDB Chief Engineer (2002 -2002)


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