Steam tunnels contain hidden history

A walkable steam tunnel connects Morgan Hall to the Lasell athletics complex. - Photo Courtesy of Don Clark.
A walkable steam tunnel connects Morgan Hall to the Lasell athletics complex. – Photo Courtesy of Don Clark.

The network of steam tunnels that runs under the College has always been a subject of intrigue among students. When Ian Nesbitt ’13 told his father that he wanted to make a map of the tunnels, his father, Director of Admissions Richard Nesbitt ’74, reacted with something almost like jealousy. “He told me that it would be great social capital,” Ian Nesbitt recalls, although he says his desire to find out more about the tunnels was purely academic.

The earliest of the steam tunnels dates back to around 1900, which was when the College’s heating plant was built. This earliest part of the steam tunnel labyrinth runs from the plant, under Lasell Gym and soon joins with a tunnel built in 1910 that goes toward Sawyer Library. Another part of the network runs west from Lasell, goes under Spring Street and feeds Jesup Hall, Morgan, West College, Clark Hall and the Bronfman Science Center. This latter section was dug around 1965, about the same time that Bronfman was being built. Another offshoot of the network runs under the area near Wood House and Perry. It turns out that the tunnels connect a majority of the buildings at Williams. “Ninety percent of campus is on our steam system,” Don Clark, the College’s project utility manager in Facilities, said.

The tunnels were originally built to facilitate the maintenance of the system of heating pipes. Tunnels, Clark said, are the “best method for maintenance,” although their expense has made a direct-bury method for piping more reasonable in recent years. Despite their age, however, the tunnels retain their original purpose. The system is run by the heating plant’s boilers, which heat up water to create steam by burning fossil fuel. In earlier years, coal and oil were burned. Now natural gas, which is cleaner and more efficient, is the major fuel utilized, with oil as a backup. The plant’s emission of carbon dioxide has fallen over time, and Clark said that in the future, the switch might eventually be made to an even more environmentally-friendly energy source. But even now, the plant is relatively efficient, producing electricity as well as heat by means of a “cogeneration” method.

Once the steam is heated, it is sent out into the pipes that run through the tunnels. Each year, the heating system is turned on in mid-September and heats the College until it is shut off in May. Turning on the system, however, is more involved than simply pressing some buttons. Each September, in order to vent the air in the pipes, several workers from Facilities must, as Clark calls it, “[chase] the steam”: race along the tunnels, waiting until the steam reaches a certain part of the pipe to turn the valve and allow it to travel into the next part.

The intrigue of the tunnels for students, has less to do with their ability to heat classrooms and more to do with the idea of traveling along its tunnels. Many of the tunnels are technically “walkable” – at least for members of Facilities. While students in the 1970s and 1980s would sometimes use the network to travel underground from West College to parties at the old pool in Lasell Gym and protect themselves from the Williamstown cold, this is no longer possible. For Facilities, students entering the tunnels is a safety and security hazard; Clark said that students getting into the steam tunnels was a “big problem” when he began his time at the College. Clark recounted one particular incident when a student got into the tunnels and was attempting to flee from pursuing Campus Safety and Security officers when the student ran into one of the pipes and sustained a head injury. Since these occurrences, doors and other barriers to tunnel entrances have been added, and silent alarms have been installed.

Perhaps the only recent student who has been in the tunnels is Ian Nesbitt, who was allowed to enter “legally” as part of a project he worked on during his sophomore year in his “Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems” class. Through analyzing thermal imaging maps of campus and exploring the tunnels themselves, Ian Nesbitt was able to make a complete, accurate map of the tunnels. He describes the tunnels as “totally unlike any building you’ve ever been in.” Although the steam tunnels are seven feet tall and four feet wide, they are not quite as easily navigable as these dimensions suggest. Ian Nesbitt describes them as “claustrophobic” and even “a little scary.” Clark has pictures of the tunnels that show jutting pipes and valves. These make the pathways difficult to travel along – especially without a light, because the tunnels themselves are pitch black.

Another danger in the steam tunnels is the lack of ventilation. When Ian Nesbitt, who was always accompanied by a Facilities staff member in his excursions, surveyed the tunnels, he had to bring along a device that monitored the air. One reason Facilities has ensured that no students can enter the tunnels is the worry that they might become unwittingly exposed to toxic air trapped somewhere underground.

The tunnels may no longer be student accessible, but they are still visible, in some form, on campus. Ian Nesbitt says that during the snowy months, it is possible to discern where the steam tunnels are underground by looking for the pathways along which the snow melts the fastest. Moreover, the system is integral to the functioning of the College – as Clark says, if the boilers were to stop functioning, “it would get cold pretty fast.”


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