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Digging up the truth about Miami’s tunnels

Building: A History Series

Robert Frost, who once referred to Miami University as the “Most Beautiful Campus That Ever There Was,” created an image that lingers to this day. Although the outward adornment of many campus buildings may be a striking neo-Georgian-esque statement, the history of the buildings is often far less appealing. This week, we examine the extensive tunnel network underneath campus.

Buried deep beneath Miami University’s pristine quads and beautiful buildings, a hidden network of tunnels criss-crosses the campus. 

Some of these passages, like the one underneath the sidewalk that runs alongside Bell Tower Commons, are visible to students who walk above. However, this tunnel system is far more extensive than what one can see above ground — approximately five miles of tunnels connect the various buildings on the mile square. 

The tunnels were first formally suggested by the university in the 1944 Building Plan. The idea developed further and was brought up again in discussions for the 1947 Building Plan. Like many universities at the time, Miami recognized the benefit of placing utility lines in walkable tunnels for easy access, repair and upgrades. 

“Most of the tunnels that were constructed coincided with the building boom times we had on campus because it was an efficient way to get all of the utilities to quads where these buildings were being constructed,” said Cody Powell, Miami’s associate vice president of facilities planning and operations. “So, we saw a lot of activity in the ‘40s through the ‘50s and into the ‘60s with residence hall construction and other facilities.” 

The 1966 Capital Improvement plan dedicated over half a million additional dollars to electrical transmission and tunnels. Although not every utility line is enclosed in a tunnel, the passages help form an extensive basic grid. Powell said these tunnels have increased the longevity of the utility grid. 

Currently, the network of passages still serve the university by carrying lines for steam, condensate, chill water, high and low voltage electric and some potable and hot water.

When Miami’s new geothermal plant began operating in January 2014, the tunnels offered a way to quickly convert large portions of campus. As the equipment was upgraded, however, an ancillary benefit of the tunnels began to disappear. For decades, heat loss from the tunnel system has kept many of Miami’s sidewalks from freezing. The new equipment reduces the wasted heat, allowing the frost to creep back onto many of the walks. 

The tunnels have other downsides, too. 

Since the tunnels carry steam and high voltage lines in a confined space, any rupture in the pipes could be incredibly dangerous to any occupants. For this reason, the tunnels are secured at every entrance and students are not allowed in the network. 

However, Powell said students have successfully broken into the passages in the past. These incursions cause numerous safety concerns for everyone on campus, and the Facilities Planning and Operations asks all students to remain out of the tunnels. 

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