The prospect of being underground, sweltering in 120 degree heat and surrounded by reinforced concrete, did little to deter “Tunnel Bob” from his many forays into the University’s tunnel system.
The University’s six miles of underground maintenance tunnels (as of 2000), which extend from the Central Power Plant to the Medical Campus and South Quad, supply heat to all local University buildings, and have long been a source of mythological fascination for students. One man, in particular, made the tunnels the stuff of legends.
“Tunnel Bob,” a University student from 1971-75, often trekked through the tunnels with a group of five or six adventuresome accomplices known as the Elliot Expeditionary Force. The group was named after the Elliot House in the Mary Markley Residence Hall, where the members lived.
Bob, who never gave the press his real name, explored the tunnels so frequently that a security guard at his dorm gave him the moniker “Steam Tunnel Bob” — a nickname that stuck throughout his four years as an undergraduate.
During an interview with The Michigan Daily in 2000, Bob said that the thrill of being in the tunnels was “to do something that was sort of semi-illegal, to explore.”
Bob added, though, that sneaking into the University’s tunnels wasn’t the only illegal act he and his friends committed underground.
“You could pretty much smoke dope whenever you wanted,” Bob said. “One time we went down there stoned and we thought we saw a security guard and we ran out (of the tunnels on the Medical Campus) in front of three campus cops and they were chasing us around the Markley parking structure — somehow they ended up on the top floor and we ended up on the bottom, and we got the hell out of there.”
Bob also said that students explored the tunnels to get into the Buhl Medical Building to see human fetuses in jars.
“You went into this gigantic room that had a ceiling maybe 20 feet high, and you went through a door into this storage room where there were all these fetuses bathed in ultraviolet light,” he said.
The tunnels weren’t only a popular site for student adventures and pranks. They were also used by the administration for safety purposes.
In the 1980s, Univerisity President Harold Shapiro and the University Board of Regents used the tunnels as an underground route to enter the Fleming Administration Building. Student protesters, demanding that Nelson Mandela be given a honorary degree by the University, blocked the above-ground entrance to the building.