Vadd-Ass Mutha

Written in April, 2005. 

I attended Central Michigan University. It was founded in 1892 in perhaps the most boring sector of the state, Mount Pleasant; a tiny town in the geographical center of Michigan's "Mitten." Despite being in a flat, dull setting, the curious soul will descry a somewhat fasinating, dark underbelly of lore that goes back a long way. Surprisingly CMU, I have heard, is considered one of the most "haunted" universities in America, and in fact it is the only one that I know of that holds a ghost tour every Halloween (attracting hundreds), who are shown around the allegedly haunted areas of campus (these first three photos are from the neglected "Piano Garden" in a courtyard of Powers Hall which a girl's ghost is supposed to inhabit).

I was already familiar with the story of James Dallas Egbert III, and that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s universities were not as secure as they are now, and I knew that up ‘til about 1979--the year that Egbert disappeared from Michigan State University--it was common practice for universities to allow students to travel through their steam tunnels in bad weather. It was about this time that Dungeons & Dragons had come out, and became all the rage among nerds on college campuses nationwide. 

Groups of students, and even faculty descended into the labyrinths of tunnels beneath their dorms at night and engaged in live games against other parties. It was due to the increasing prevalence of rapes in the tunnels, as well as the case of James Dallas Egbert making national news that put a quick stop to the practice. MSU may have been the first to start locking their basement doors and bolting the lids down on their steam tunnels, but regardless, it swiftly became off-limits for students to use the tunnels anymore. At CMU, being caught down there was the one thing that a student could be automatically expelled for without an academic review. The fascinating story of the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, and the tunnel “scene” at MSU, is described in great detail in the book The Dungeon Master, written by detective William Dear in 1984.

I knew that a very few skillful people still got into parts of the tunnels under University of Michigan, such as N-Rock, Bill Ding, and my comrade Stevie Y, but that it was incredibly risky. I had also heard that CMU had placed motion detectors in its own tunnels for added security. By walking around campus and noticing certain things over the years, I could tell that the place was indeed kept as tight as Fort Knox. I quickly abandoned any hope of ever adding tunnel exploring to my list of stuff to keep me entertained on those long northern winter nights. Nonetheless I was intrigued, and even happened upon a message board online one day, dedicated to the exploring of college tunnels, a hobby apparently known as “vadding.” Though there was quite a bit on it about U of M, there was nothing on it about CMU, so again I was disheartened, but no less curious. 

As I walked to and from classes, I constantly noticed the large square vents which popped up from the ground all over campus, which indicated a tunnel lie beneath. In cold weather, when light dustings of snow would fall, I would notice certain bands of pavement or grass would not accumulate snow. Yet another sign that heated steam tunnels snaked below me. I had read that CMU had at least NINE MILES of tunnels beneath it, and watched with interest as crews installed tunnel service to the new building that replaced Theunissen Field. I finally broke down and got a campus map so I could begin drawing on it in colored ink where I knew there were tunnels by where I saw snowless areas and the other clues. Probably the most obvious and famous tunnel entrance was the “Warriner Pit,” next to the main admin blg which is a stair going down to a door that used to be accessible, and which according to the old website of the CMU ghost tours, was used by Satanists going down to do rituals, or some other silliness.

I worked a graveyard shift at CMU's radio station, and one night as I roamed Moore Hall between airshifts, I found a stairwell that went down. It was 2am and most of the building was dark and deserted, but I saw light coming from the bottom of these stairs. I went down and came to a locked door with a small window in it that gave me a view of a lit steam tunnel! I was ecstatic at this tantalizing little glimpse, but there was no way to trick this hardened door open. Undoubtedly, it led to the Music Building next-door. I thought back to the time I had once seen a basement door open in Anspach Hall, but passed it up for fear that an FM guy lurked just inside. My last semester was coming up, and though I had been utterly repelled thus far in my attempts, I determined to get into the tunnels at least once before I graduated. I had gleaned an unexpected boost of courage by the fact that I had recently infiltrated the Mt. Pleasant State Home.

By way of my natural curiosity I had long been in the practice of wandering through buildings I wouldn’t normally go into, searching for possible entry points, and though I found interesting stuff, such as the attic of Powers Hall, and the vast basement of Robinson Dining Commons (where I retained meager employment), still no tunnel access. I was greeted by yet more mocking near-successes when I started having classes in Powers Hall. Outside in the sidewalk was one of those long, narrow steel covers that obviously led into the tunnels. Except this one was not welded shut like the others. I started to think that was my only hope, so I started plans in my head for how to do it, though it was a highly visible, busy area even at night. I would slowly approach, and when the coast was clear, I would stoop next to it as if to tie my boot. But instead of that I would use a small screwdriver to lift the lid and peek inside. The night I tried this, I quickly realized the steel lid was a little heavier than I had anticipated...that long-wrought plan went down the tubes, along with a busted screwdriver.

Then I had a class (Michigan History, ironically enough) where I sat in the front corner of the room by the windows overlooking the same sidewalk that had that narrow steel lid. And what did I see on the floor of this room right next to my desk, but a little square access lid, almost like one that would lead into a tunnel? In the floor of the freaking classroom! Oh, I spent many a day staring at that metal lid fantasizing about whipping out my mini-Maglite, jumping up and tearing it open in the middle of class and diving down inside to escape the crowded classroom amidst stares of disbelief. Or popping up through it during a different class. But when I finally got the chance to see if it was open, it wouldn’t budge. Back to square zero. My hopes lifted briefly again when one day I saw excavation work going on behind Park Library. That night I saw one of those big square tunnel vents opened and light coming up from below! I had gone around for a long time trying to lift up on those big sonsabitches but they never opened for me. I crept closer and looked down into the tunnel. There was a ladder and I could hear a guy working, just out of my view. No way could I have pulled it off...what a drag. Then, some days later I noticed a large lid off the corner of Beddow Hall that looked promising, but again, no dice.

In the final two months of my stay at CMU, the university announced it would be adding onto Woldt Hall. Excavations began right away during spring thaw, and again I saw a chance, slim though it may be. I knew there was a tunnel running right under where they had begun digging, and obviously they would have to do work on it to accommodate the new building. The worksite was well secured however, and I didnt feel like tearing through a fence when I didn’t even know whether they had actually opened up the tunnel down in there or not. So I passed up on that one too. But even though I was now in my final weeks before graduation, I at long last had my lucky break.

As I was walking home from the library one night it was cold and snowing like mad, so I decided to cut through Trout and Calkins Halls, connected in a cluster of four dorms. As I was about to step out of Calkins Hall on the other side I noticed a door to the basement, labeled "Mechanical Room." Now, this is not abnormal; those are everywhere, and can be found in every building on campus. Instinctively, I checked to see if it was unlocked. Fat chance, right? But nonetheless, I always check.

It opened. I didnt even stop to think--I walked right in. But I had to stop at the top of the stairs leading down, because it was totally dark. I found a light switch and flipped it, but nothing happened. Right about then I realized that this stairwell was full of f#$%ing cobwebs–they were all over me. A good sign that I wouldn't run into anyone, I suppose. I also noticed, more curiously, that the latch to this door did not work didn’t latch at all when closed! Instantly, I knew I had to go home and come back to explore this with proper equipment, immediately. I knew the dorms locked their exterior doors at 11:30, so I had to be fast. 

My apartment was a mere 300 yards away, so I hurried up and got my exploring gear, walked down the train tracks, and went back into Calkins Hall. I found the door still open, and descended into the basement. No one saw me. I started to think this might be a false hope, due to the fact that there was no light, heat, or noise coming from this basement. At the bottom of the stairs, I rounded the corner and lo and behold this was not the basement, but instead there was the mouth of a small tunnel, about "pipe-trench" size:

I thought, I'm in like Flynn. I was. The tunnel enlarged a bit down the line, and was filled with water pipes and network wiring. The tunnel lights were turned off though. I searched for any of the motion detectors that are supposedly down there, but saw none the whole time.

I started moving quickly, and marked where I had come from with my marker on the wall down near the floor, out of sight. I used arrows to indicate my direction of travel, and also noted the compass direction so as to try and keep an idea of where I was going in relation to the rest of campus. I did this because I had absolutely no idea how far these tunnels would take me, and I figured that blindly wandering into a nine-or-more-mile-long labyrinth of potentially identical concrete tunnels on an empty stomach would be insanity. But I also didn’t yet want to give away the fact that I had been down here, because I might have to come back here more than once. 

The tunnel I was walking through was still full of cobwebs, meaning there was little or no foot traffic at all down here. One thing in my favor was that it was the middle of the night, so chances of running into FM guys working down here was lower. I explored for about an hour, found a couple intersections, a couple more stairwells leading up into buildings (I didn’t try the doors out of fear that someone would hear me and report it to an RA). Every now and then in the tunnel walls would be a recess where a pipe chase connected, and I could hear voices carrying through them from dorm rooms above...basically the sounds of people brushing their teeth or telling their roomie they were going to take a shower. 

I did find two mechanical rooms with machinery running, and a couple tunnel intersections with lights on where the floor dropped a couple feet, enabling one to stand up straight. Here is one intersection, where again, the floor was lower than the rest of the tunnel, and on the wall to the right is a telephone / DSL interface with punchblocks:

So admittedly, all in all I only got to explore the tunnels under the Trout/Calkins complex, an isolated part of the network in the very northwest corner of campus. For some reason, there was no connecting tunnel that I could find that lead into the rest of the system--namely the steam system. Weird. 

But I can claim to have planted the flag of victory on a small portion of something that allegedly "couldn't be done," and that no one has explored since 1979, or whenever the tunnels of CMU became verboten. I don't want to stand here and act like I am the only person to have ever been able to crack CMU's armor, but I have never heard of or from anyone else who has.

In one tunnel I found a dusty old barrel that had the CMU seal on it, the slogan "GOOD LUCK CHIPS," and the date 1969 in the center. I really want to know the story behind that one, and whether anybody knows how or why it got down there. It looks like there was a big fake handle attached to the side of it to make it look like a coffee cup.

It is worth noting that I found absolutely no graffiti or tags of any kind down there, nor any typical spoor (such as beer cans or condoms) left behind by earlier explorers.

When I had explored all I could, I went back to a mechanical room I had found earlier, with double doors leading outside to a staircase going up to ground level. They opened from inside but locked from outside. I decided to leave this way instead of retracing my steps. The journey thus far had involved a lot of painful squat-walking, and my knees, back, and neck were sore already.

Turned out I was now back on the north side of Trout Hall, facing Bellows Street, less than 300 yards from my own apartment (which at the time was the May Street M-9, inside the warehouse next to the railroad tracks, now demolished). I went up the stairs onto the sidewalk, and all of a sudden there was a guy and a girl there walking. I just acted natural and crossed the street, covered in chalky dust and junk, sweating my ass off in the frigid night air, and panting like a dog while crunching across the snow. Mission f#$%ing accomplished. 

My muscles ached from crouch-walking in the cramped space and I had over-dressed beyond belief; I had sweat so much down there in the heat that I was almost delirious with thirst. And damn those tunnels were small, though...more like pipe trenches. Both of the mechanical rooms I came to had a mechanic's creeper on hand. 

I would have to think that the main tunnels would be bigger. And there must be a hell of a lot of them, considering the size of campus. What I really wanted to see was the underside of Warriner Hall, the main administration building...any tunnels leading to that might be the old brick style, but alas, this was not to be. I also have to wonder about that broken door latch in almost seemed as if it were broken on if certain students wanted that door to remain accessible.

*   *   *

As it so happens, as I was re-writing this entry for reposting here, I came across an article in CM Life from November 22, 2013--barely two months ago--entitled, "Beneath the Surface: Exploring CMU’s underground tunnel system." In it, aside from description of the tunnels' utility functions and interviews with the FM mechanic who supervises them, it debunks the myth that the tunnels were at one time open to students during bad weather. He says that the tunnels "were never open to students," and that may have been official policy, but I think it's just as likely that the tunnels were simply accessed in the old days as common practice anyway, even though it may not have been the official policy. There was definitely a time at which security was clamped down, however. 

The article also goes on to actually bolster another myth; that lab animals from Brooks Hall, such as snakes, actually escape sometimes and live in the tunnels, even quoting FM man Jim Waters who claimed to have had a snake strike at him unexpectedly from underneath a bag while in the tunnels and try to bite. He was also quoted as saying that shed rattlesnake skins have been found in the tunnels as well, which seems almost to be a ploy to dissuade young, naughty CM Life readers from thinking about sneaking down there after reading the article, before going on to warn:
For students who feel compelled to enter the tunnels, the consequences for trespassing are taken very seriously by both the university and the CMU Police Department...not only would students who attempt to enter the tunnels be prosecuted in court, they could also face suspension and possible expulsion by the university.
The article reports that in 2011, five "former students" were charged with trespassing misdemeanors for unauthorized entry into the tunnels, They claimed they "accidentally found their way into the tunnels after accessing a control switch in an elevator in Wightman Hall."

Heh, that sounds pretty unlikely. Seeing as Wightman is the art department, I bet they were were some sneaky little punks who knew exactly what they were doing; attempting a clandestine little adventure like me but got caught, perhaps by a motion detector in a main corridor, or an on duty FM guy...or by the fact that their elevator was likely out of order after they put it on manual control to take it down to the basement, which was undoubtedly reported by the very next person who tried to use it.

In a short video that accompanies the article, a couple pieces of graffiti are visible, and the FM guy talking in the background is heard to say that there was also a pentagram painted in another area of the tunnels.