Beneath the surface of Ring Road lies the greatest legend and mystery of the Irvine campus: the subterranean tunnel system. It is discussed over lunches and dinners with friends who have friends who’ve seen it, who’ve been there. Rumors abound as to their origin and nature. Some say they were designed so professors could cross the campus faster than using Ring Road. Others say they were designed as a secret entrance and exit from the main campus. These same tunnels would be used by faculty and emergency services to escape and contain rampaging students in the event of a late-1960s political riot. Some say that they are used by Fraternities to conduct hazing rituals. I’ve also heard that they are haunted.
I took a trip to the Central Plant to solve this mystery once and for all, wherein I met Paul Howland, facilities manager, who gave me a short tour of the facilities. The tunnels begin at the Central Plant. It’s the squat, glassy building beneath the enormous water tanks, across from Crawford Pool. Double-paned glass keeps the roar of the furnaces contained within the building. This is where all of the water for UCI’s heating and cooling is prepared and stored.
Enormous furnaces heat large volumes of water for transport into the tunnels. Pipes, several feet in diameter, carry super-heated water at three hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit, at 200 psi, all along Ring Road and back. Water softeners prepare laboratory-quality water for buildings, and chillers provide cooled water for building air conditioning, each traveling in their own pipes. This equipment is all monitored by a sophisticated customized software suite that monitors and adjusts pressure and temperature levels throughout the plant.
Before leading me into the tunnels, Howland explained the importance of security in the tunnels. Currently, the tunnels are locked by traditional key locks, floor-to-ceiling bars and solid doors in building basements. The facilities department is in the process of implementing a card-key access system as well as adding cameras and motion sensors at key locations. Apparently there used to be quite a problem with fraternity activities and parties going on down there.
The first thing you notice when entering the tunnels is not the damp air. or the lamps suspended from the ceiling, stretching off into a gradual curve. The first thing you notice is the heat. A wall of hot pipes on the left hand side takes up almost half the space of the tunnel. Cold and soft water pipes are nestled in between the hot ones, and are insulated well. A nest of wires carries electricity, phone and data lines overhead. This is what the tunnel looks like, from one end to the other, broken periodically by doors, gates and stenciled paint: MAIN LIBRARY. SOC SCI. CENTRAL PLANT. The tunnels are absolutely fantastic, at least in a ducts-and-wires, valves-and-gauges kind of way.
Halfway around the tunnel, near Langston Library was the most fascinating part. ‘The Room.’ Clearly utilized by fraternities and vandals over the years, it is an ancient mess. Breaking the tunnel for about 15 feet, it is a wedge shaped room with a single light hanging from the center. A small switch on the wall operates the power. The spotless floor draws all the attention to the walls, which are covered in tagging and scrawl. Written in red pen, skewed and dated, is an ominous message from the Prince of Darkness himself: ‘I am the one who rules the world. Beware my wrath.