Seen above, not the Doyle Owl. (Photo courtesy of Gary Granger.)
Reed Tradition: The Steam Tunnels
By Adrian Keller Feld
For many years the subterranean steam tunnels under the college have captivated the student imagination, with many expeditions done into the bowels of Reed’s heating system — but this has faded somewhat in recent years. The steam tunnels are one of Reed’s oldest pieces of infrastructure and are still used to heat the oldest buildings on campus. With the heat recently turned on, the pipes housed within now push steam throughout the school. While they are rather dangerous, there have been some Reed-sponsored tours in recent years — led by Director of Facilities Operations Steve Yeadon and Director of Community Safety Gary Granger.
The tunnels were brought to the forefront of Reed’s imagination in a different way in 2018 when a sidewalk construction project unearthed a 2-foot tall 100-pound rabbit, named by nearby graffiti “Lord Humongous,” an event covered in a Quest article of the day entitled “Rascally Rabbit.” This article places the rabbit with facilities, however Steve Yeadon said in an email to the Quest this week that, “the last I knew about the rabbit it had been stolen from the Physical Plant grounds,” shortly after its excavation, so the mystery of Lord Humongous continues.
Aside from giant bunnies, the steam tunnels are filled with choice pieces of graffiti including, “Names and dates, complex math equations, one-liners like ‘Simeon Reed’s country club,’ and ‘f**k vandalism,’” and even some well-placed skeletons, according to a 2012 article in the Reed Magazine. Most of these things have come about through students going into the tunnels on their own time, without Facilities or Community Safety watching.
In its investigation of Lord Humongous, the Quest learned that Reedies David Drexler and Zack Stadel claimed responsibility for the rabbit, with Drexler saying he, “used to get into the tunnels and ride tiny bikes around down there.” The Quest continued that, “the rabbit installation was the result of ‘drunken shenanigans’ in the late ‘90s that [Drexler] can’t remember.”
More recently students have continued to enter the tunnels, including a current Reedie who described their experience by saying that they saw, “lots of graffiti, several asbestos warnings about dust, definitely quite damp if it rained recently.” They also described the tunnels as being, “part of Reed’s subversive culture to go down there and do art projects, but it didn’t seem all that frequently visited.” Even in the 2012 Reed Magazine article, venturing into the steam tunnels was described as “Olde Reed shenanigans.”
In the past, Director of Community Safety Gary Granger has delighted in taking people on tours of the steam tunnels, through orientation events, parent and family weekends, and even bringing your child to work days. For these tours Granger would sometimes purchase garden gnomes and allow students on the tour to add them inside the tunnels, to contribute to the tradition of leaving little figures in the tunnels. However, these tours, and most adventures into the tunnels, had to be halted a few years ago, when the space was classed as a confined space under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) definition and was thus deemed too dangerous to go down in, except for essential work. OSHA defines a confined space as one that has, “limited or restricted means for entry or exit and is not designed for continuous occupancy.” The Reed steam tunnels definitely fit this description, and considering the incredibly hot steam pipes insulated with asbestos, tight spaces, and puddles – Granger said he’d “need all fingers” to count the ways in which the tunnels pose a hazard.
The tunnels were some of the first construction work done on campus. Built to heat the earliest buildings, Old Dorm Block and Eliot Hall, they are still in use today for that original purpose, as well as housing other Reed infrastructure such as things for electronics. Very much a working space, the tunnels are the industrial underbelly that keeps Reed afloat, but their hidden mystique has made them take on a different hue in the eyes of students. Over the years many different Reedies have ventured down to leave their mark on this piece of the school, including a lot of art seen by Granger, and according to Community Safety Day Manager and Reed alumnus, Dhyana Westfall, “There was a time during the early 2000s when Furbies took over the Vollum Lecture Hall briefly. At some point following that there was a strong Furbie presence in the steam tunnels, but that presence has since declined.” She also mentioned a skeleton constructed of rebar that lives somewhere in the tunnels.
Nowadays, all entrances to the steam tunnels are locked, and the space is only officially entered when maintenance or other work is required. As a confined space containing asbestos, face coverings are important, as well as having someone on the outside of the tunnels for communication and assistance. The tunnels are dangerous and should be treated the same as going into the wilderness. While entrance to the tunnels isn’t what it once was, students can still delight in knowing they’re there, below, full of strange statues and odd art – and maybe, above ground, there lurks a large rabbit just waiting to come back into the limelight.