Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban explorationUniversity of MN Steam Tunnels:

Saint Paul Campus

The First Visit
March 2001

Max Action, Captain Worm, and Fuck

We finally got around to looking for an entrance to the Saint Paul steam tunnels after knowing for years that they existed we just never bothered to go try 'em out for some reason. We were finally goaded into giving them a shot when Fuck saw a news blurb about how the U had discovered some bomb shelters beneath the veterinary sciences buildings from the 1950's that no one knew were there. We didn't really expect them to be connected to the main steam tunnel system (or they wouldn't have been lost for so long, eh?), but it was a great excuse to go exploring.

We first tried to access the tunnels though the steam plant. We snuck into the plant just fine, but then chose to flee when a couple of workers came down some stairs to the level we were on. It was only something like 10:00 PM, which is pretty damn early to be doing shit like brazenly walking into the physical plant. So we instead started searching for telltale vent covers in the ground. After much walking aimlessly about, we finally we found one, but it was padlocked. The second one we found was in the middle of a brightly-lit area between several buildings, and was completely stuck, to boot.

Finally, we found an unusually-shaped vent exuding that wonderful, hot, dry, steam tunnel scent. God, I love that smell. The cover wasn't locked down, and wasn't in a horribly exposed place, so we crawled down into the shallow tunnel below.

Whoo hoo! It was a moment for celebration; Action Squad had finally conquered all three of the University of Minnesota steam tunnel systems (the U of MN steam tunnels were the original goal that Action Squad had been formed around).

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The tunnels struck as us strange, compared to the other U of MN steam tunnel systems we'd explored. The Saint Paul system is mostly shallow-level, unlike the deep tunnels beneath the Minneapolis campus. In some places there are multiple levels of tunnel, one right over the other, and shafts shoot off in seemingly random directions and heights constantly. The tunnels slant up and down at angles that are ridiculously steep in places, and there were no signs letting us know where we were. To get our bearings as we explored, we popped up into various campus buildings and looked for helpful signage.

We poked around in Haecker Hall, and then got into the "Meat Sciences" building, where we found the "Processing" and "Cutting" rooms, filled with giant bone saws, super-sized freezers, and the coppery stench of blood.

After having our fill of the butcher school classrooms, we returned to the tunnels, checked out a couple of other buildings, and then found a manhole cover in the tunnel ceiling that, when we opened it up a bit, admitted a breeze laden with the distinctive smell of large mammals. Too cocky, probably, from our previous trips up into campus buildings, we decided to check it out.

I went first, pushing the manhole cover across the concrete as quietly as possible. Well, to be honest, I'm not sure that I tried as hard as I should have to keep the noise to an absolute minimum. This was almost two years ago, and we were a bit sloppier then.

Once up out of the tunnel, I looked around and found myself in a room with several barred-in animal enclosures, and a sign reading "Large Animal Hospital." It occurred to me that this was the kind of place that held not only large animals, but most likely animal tranquilizers, as well which, I understand, are quite popular with the drug-kid raver crowd. This, of course, meant it was highly likely that they'd have someone on staff all night, and/or a security system. I turned to tell the other guys not to come up ... and that's when I heard something.

I whipped around toward the sound, just in time to see a woman walk out from around a corner, about 30 feet away. She was looking right at me. I was wearing a headlamp, covered in filth, and standing there at 1:30 in the morning.

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She froze.

I froze.

I felt my mouth open on its own. I heard a voice coming out of my mouth say, "howdy!" in a quite conversational manner.

Then I practically dove into the hole in the floor, and we all ran like hell through the tunnels. We knew the police would be there within minutes, and it was at least remotely possible they'd bring a dog to track us through the tunnels. Cap, who had been bringing up the rear, was now leading in the front, and he took a wrong turn early on, so we had to sprint back almost all the way to the open manhole in order to get back on track. Much swearing ensued between gasps for breath.

Deciding we wouldn't be able to get all the way back to the entrance point at a run without getting lost at least once more, I led everyone back into Haecker Hall. There, we surfaced into the basement, tucked away our more incriminating gear, and hurried up the stairs and out the front doors. We made it back to the car across campus without incident, and got the hell off campus, laughing our asses off.

See, getting caught in the act of illicit exploration like that is really weird ... on one hand, it's obviously a bad thing, since it makes it harder to return (and cuts your exploration short). But on the other hand, there really are few ways to end a trip that are more fun than successfully escaping from the authorities with the adrenaline singing in your veins, rather than trudging back over your tracks, totally exhausted and all-too-conscious of how sore your feet are.

We heard later from a friendly resident of a nearby dorm that four squad cars with their cherries on came flying up to the building we'd fled. I wonder if they even tried to send someone into the tunnels to find us, and I wonder what that poor woman that stumbled across us thought about the incident

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ONWARD TO PART 2: THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN >