Beneath Berkeley:
UC Berkeley Steam Tunnels Exploration

Beneath Berkeley: UC Berkeley Steam Tunnels Exploration

Back around 2005-2006, as social media took off, I was a member of an urban exploration chat group, memory fails but it was probably something on Tribe or Friendster. Mentioning my interest in the UC Berkeley Steam Tunnels—a fabled network of sometimes-dangerous underground utility tunnels cross-crossing the UC Berkeley campus, which had once been well-traveled by intrepid explorers but had since been sealed off, with all access supposedly welded shut, although as of this writing I can find no evidence online of this other than an absence of any reported explorations after about 2001, and one or two scattered online claims of later access (which happen to jibe with te experience I’m about to relate)—I was contacted by privately by an old-school liberty-spiked homeless punk kid named Spider, who said he knew a way in. After a preliminary meeting to discuss, as well as being regaled by Spider’s tales of how to ride for free on Amtrak and BART, we met up on evening at a building on the UC Berkeley campus where Spider and a female companion had earlier in the day propped a window open in a basement bathroom before the building was locked for the night. Slipping in, in what I believe is the only actual B&E of a live site in my entire life, and from there past a door Spider said was alarmed, through another door and down a flight of stairs into a sub-basement, then through some further utility rooms and up and down metal staircases, finally through small hatch in a wall, and we were in the famous Berkeley Steam Tunnels, where I snapped the following handful of photos.

As the rumors had said, besides the long walkways full of steam pipes, and the closed-off areas where Spider said there was asbestos, the tunnels did indeed, as the rumors had said, lead through the basements of several buildings. I don’t know which ones, but as is apparent from the photos, at least one building basement on the Berkeley campus has giant vats of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, better known as lye, either of which is capable of fully dissolving the lipids that together human beings. There was surprisingly little graffiti down there, indicated there hadn’t been much traffic in the recent decades since tagging became popular. Aside from some illegible words scratched on the tunnel side of the entry hatch, the sole evidence of other explorers in these photos were the faux Latin “Et Ego In Undercampo” someone had written with a finger on a dusty pipe.

Later on I asked Spider how he’d known the first door was alarmed. He said, “I tested it.” I said, “How’d you do that?” He said, “I opened it and waited around to see if anybody showed up.” “What’d you tell them when they showed up?” “I told them I didn’t know who opened the door.” Spider had an insouciance I have to admit I found charismatic.

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