Notes from Underground

Series of large pipes and wires leading down a concrete tunnel.

The enduring appeal of the tunnels.

A bare bulb gives dim yellow light. Scrawled on the cement walls enclosing you are the names of former lovers, jokes and drawings from decades ago. The air is warm, dry and humming from a ventilation fan off in the darkness. You shouldn’t be here, but here you are. Why? What brought you down here? And above all, is it worth it?

A young woman with long braided hair wearing a white T-shirt and jeans smiling and crouching down in a large circular tunnel.
Venturing down into the tunnels as students were Josh Schoenwald ’00 and Amber Schnaider ’01, MEd ’02 (pictured).

For some reason, Tritons across generations have answered “yes” and ventured into the utility tunnels underneath campus. Be it the thrill of trespassing, the need for a challenge or just to know what’s below and emerge with a story, there are as many motives as there are rumors surrounding the tunnels’ existence. Were they corridors for National Guardsmen in the tumultuous ’60s? Secret passages for covert government projects? Emergency escape routes for administration?

The truth is far more mundane and, well, utilitarian. The intention of the tunnels was simply to pipe out utilities such as water, electricity, natural gas and telephone lines from a central plant. The system expanded along with campus to the School of Medicine, Geisel Library, Mandeville Hall and Marshall College, up until the ’70s when it was no longer cost-efficient to maintain a full-scale tunnel system.

Yet the stories of Triton spelunkers are far more thrilling. “The first class at UCSD knew all about the tunnels,” says Barbara Denz ’69. “They were easy to access because of all the construction. As long as we didn’t screw around with stuff down there, back then, no one really cared.”

Tunnel security increased over the years given the inherent hazards down below. John Dilliott, director of campus utilities and sustainability, has been the main guardian of the tunnels for decades and knows them better than anyone. “The pipes contain 350-degree water, and the insulation was created in the late 1960s with asbestos. It’s not an issue until it’s disturbed, but it’s still a hazard,” he says.

A faded poem written on a concrete surface.With protections like locks and alarms, cameras and consequences, exploring the tunnels may be a student exploit of another time. But as long as they lie beneath, the lore lives on, passed among Tritons. “The summer before I left for college, I met an alum from the 1970s who told me how to access the tunnels through a manhole in the Hump,” says Jeff Palitz ’94. “It was a little unnerving when we first got there. It was dark, and we got disoriented very quickly.”

Also venturing down the manhole as students were Josh Schoenwald ’00 and Amber Schnaider ’01, MEd ’02. “I saw a student fee line item that read ‘lighting for tunnels,’” says Schnaider, somewhat facetiously, “so I figured we were justified in going to see what we were paying for.” Equipped with flashlights, a crude map and derring-do, the pair wandered for hours one night until they finally realized—they weren’t alone… Read more at


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