University of MN Steam Tunnels:

Saint Paul Campus

The Triumphant Return
January 2003

Max Action and Tourettes

Almost 2 years later, I got around to scanning the photos from our trip into the Saint Paul campus steam tunnels. As I finished up and started thinking about putting the new website section up, it occurred to me that the photos I had of the system were pretty weak. I only had a handful, and they were almost as many shots of the Meat Sciences building as there were of the tunnels themselves. The system was a quite interesting one, and I decided that it deserved better representation on the website ... so I started calling around to see which Squad members were up for a trip.

"When?" they would ask.

"Tonight. Now." Most Action Squad trips are pretty spur of the moment.

In the end, only Tourettes was willing and able to come with, which worked out well since she knew of an entrance Slim Jim had found which was better than the one the Captain, Fuck and I had used years ago.

It was just around zero degrees, with a wind-chill about 10 below, which presented us with an age-old exploration dilemma; what to wear. See, it was frickin' freezing outside, but steam tunnels generally range from temperate to sauna-hot. Tourettes decided to dress in warm layers and bring a backpack to shed them into; I went with medium-warm clothes that zipped up the front so I could open them up in the heat of the tunnels.

We geared up and drove into campus, and parked several blocks from the actual entrance. Although locating the entry took more time, effort, and frozen snot that we'd expected, we eventually did find it and got into the tunnels without incident.

I had a vague memory of how the tunnels were arranged beneath the campus from our last trip, and had brought a map of the campus on a clipboard, so I could trace our route as we progressed and not get lost somehow. It was easier to navigate on this trip, because little post-it notes that had been left by an exterminator usually bore the name of the building they were left beneath.

We made a loop of the southernmost side of the campus first, keeping an eye peeled for the 1950's fallout shelters that were said to be somewhere in this part of the system. The temperature was very nicely regulated, with very few places that were very hot or cold. This had been accomplished by both strategic placement of giant tunnel fans and the installation of sliding iron doors at the bottom of ventilation/entrance shafts to the surface. Many of these were closed, while others were left open a small amount to allow cold outside air to pour down into the steam-heated passageways.

We then did a loop of the northwestern part of campus, stopping to take photos and to check out interesting features. There was often no clear distinction between where a tunnel ended and where a building's mechanical room began: there were tunnels in some buildings, and mechanical room-like spaces in the tunnels.

After three and a half hours of exploration and documentation, we were both starving and ready to head back to the surface. After a few minutes of confusion (I'd forgotten that we had to climb a ladder up over some pipes and then down the other side to cross over to a parallel tunnel), we fixed our location on the crude map I'd been making and set out for the entrance/exit.

Tourettes exited first, and, when I got the "all-clear," I followed. As we walked briskly toward the car, I noticed the gravel before us had faint shadows that were growing stronger.

"Act natural. A car is sneaking up behind us."

The vehicle drew nearer.

"I'm going to take a look. Innocent people wouldn't just ignore a car lurking behind them." I looked. It was a campus police truck.

"Where the hell did he come from?"

I hoped that the cop would just drive past us, but he didn't. The truck crept along slowly behind us, with us pinned in its headlights. God damn it, I'd almost gotten busted the last time I'd explored this system, but I'd gotten away. Now I return for a safe little photo run and we're about to get nailed. I knew that at least some members of the U campus police force had a major hard-on to bust us.

We'd been getting emails on and off for years from kids stopped on campus for various offenses, reporting that the officers that questioned them had demanded to know if they were members of Action Squad, if they knew anyone in Action Squad, if they knew about Action Squad.

I did not relish the idea of giving them the satisfaction of finally nabbing us, so long after we'd essentially finished exploring their campus.

Anyway, this particular cop drifted along behind us, as we acted indifferent while bracing for the moment that a spotlight would hit us and the red cherries would begin to spin and the distorted bullhorn voice of an amplified officer of the law would demand compliance.

To run, or not to run? That was the question. On one hand, the cop may have seen us exit the tunnels and was either toying with us cruelly or simply radioing his comrades before busting us. On the other hand, perhaps he had not actually seen us do anything, but strongly suspected we had, and was trying to scare us into running or otherwise betraying our guilt. It was a tense moment, as we considered options, weighed probabilities, and did our best impression of nonchalance.

We turned a corner and approached the parked car we'd come in. It was the only car parked anywhere in the area. The cop waited at the stop sign, watching us walk down the road. As we approached the car, Tourettes suggested we just walk past it, both to keep the option of flight open and to avoid associating ourselves with something that would be so easily linked to our identities via the license plate number.

"No, just get into it. He's just going to keep following us, and if we have nowhere to go it's only going to get us both frozen and busted. I don't think they saw anything. Just act innocent. I have a feeling he's bluffing."

We got into the car, while the police truck idled a half block away at the stop sign, watching us. Tourettes started the car and turned on the headlights. The cop finally moved, turning in our direction. As he pulled past us, I faced Tourettes, talking casually, only giving a glance to the oncoming police car. More or less could be suspicious.

He drove past us slowly, and then let off the gas, just coasting down the road at a snail's pace, watching us in his rearview mirror.

"Alright, pull out and do a U-turn."

"Toward the cop?!"

"Yeah, it'll look good. And that's the way home, anyway."

As we came up behind the police truck, it turned onto a side street and stopped, watching us go past. The next couple of minutes were tense ones, as we hid gear throughout the car and waited for him or other cops he'd called on the radio to pull us over.

But no one did. We made it back to Minneapolis unarrested, and devoured some subs on the University's Minneapolis East Bank campus. It had been another night beneath the U's Saint Paul campus, another night almost getting busted, and another night getting away unscathed.

Good times.

                     Action Squad urban exploration