Traveling around the steam tunnel system that runs under UCLA is no easy feat. The ceiling is low, and the corridors are narrow. Metal fixtures jutting out of pipes and exposed light bulbs create a sort of minefield for anyone more than 5 feet 7 inches. Some tunnels are circular instead of square, which creates an uneven walking surface, and you’ll probably have to climb a ladder at some point.
Then there’s the matter of getting in. Some people sneak in through unlocked doors, while others open up large, padlocked brown metal grates in the ground around campus and jump down 8 to 10 feet. That seems a little drastic to me, but then, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the tunnel system with the director of facilities management, Leroy Sisneros.
We started our adventure in the sunken garden near Schoenberg and Murphy halls. That area of campus used to be a dry riverbed with a bridge, both of which are now underground. The first thing that struck me was how well-lit and dry the tunnels were.
I don’t know what I was expecting ““ probably pitch-black sewers with rabid rats the size of golden retrievers ““ but with the exception of one cockroach and the occasional trail of ants, the only people down there were Sisneros, two trigger-happy photographers from the Daily Bruin and me. Sisneros assured me that because there was no food down in the tunnels, there was nothing to attract any furry critters down there. You’d be much more likely to run into a rat in a classroom or an office where food has been sitting in the trash can for a while.
Our tour led us through North Campus, through the electrical room and loading area of Royce Hall, to the storage basement of the Charles E. Young Research Library, then up two ladders and through small hallways with low ceilings that began to look the same. Sisneros claims that it’s unlikely a student would ever get lost, because there are several entrances into buildings within the tunnels, but every time he asked me to guess which building we were in, I was wrong.
Very few places in the tunnels are distinct. One of those places is the theater department’s props storage room. The area technically isn’t a part of the tunnels, but Sisneros had keys to open the door that leads into the room.
The theater department has an old-fashioned bathtub, a jukebox, an electric chair, a pay phone and rows and rows of chairs and tables in different styles from different eras. The storage room was, by far, the highlight of the trip.
Before I went underground, I talked with Anthony Stein, a UCLA alumnus who frequented the tunnels during his time as a student. According to Stein, he has made the trip through the tunnels 30 times.
Stein is familiar with many of the intricate details of the tunnels, such as which places are more likely to be damp after a heavy rain, or where someone is most likely to get hurt if they’re fooling around. For him, the dangers associated with the tunnels are secondary to the thrill.
Having spoken to him first, part of me wished my expedition underground would have occurred the way most do ““ at 3 a.m., after some skulking around for a way in ““ but since I had a legal way to go about it, I decided not to complain. And Sisneros says he gives monthly tours to groups of three to 10 people to deter adventurers.
Besides, the rumors are true. There are signs dispersed throughout the tunnels that make it very clear that you’re trespassing and the full force of the law will be used against you if you’re caught.
If a facilities employee or an officer from university police catches you, then discipline is handled on a case-by-case basis by the Student Advisory Council. I have a feeling that being intoxicated and underage would greatly increase your chances of being expelled.
Despite the law and the facilities staff’s best efforts to keep students out, I expect stolen chairs, graffiti and markers of the exploits of students long graduated to continue to make their way into the tunnels for years to come. As Stein said, we’re a bunch of 18-to-21-year-olds, and what’s better than adventure?