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San Francisco neighborhood, just below Twin Peaks.
Urban Exploration
Going places you're not really supposed to go

On This Page:

    • Introduction (Wash., D.C., Cleveland)
    • Mammoth Cave, Off-Trail
    • Storm Drain Story
    • University of Michigan manhole
    • Links to other urban exploration pages

Eerie photos from the Washington, D.C., subway.


Have you ever wanted to explore an abandoned building or climb a rooftop? What's further down that subway tunnel or storm drain? I'm awed at the enormous contraptions of

Part of the Flats in Cleveland, Ohio.
industry, like train yards, bridges, tunnels, and ships. Major cities contain vast networks of underground passageways, huge cavernous rooms carved by man, some over a hundred years old.

To the right is a photo I took in Cleveland near downtown. I grew up less than an hour from Cleveland. The industrial area along the Cuyahoga River is a lot of fun to explore, and often you'll see a huge freighter being steered through the knotted river.


Elsewhere on the Web

If you want to find out more about urban exploration, Infiltration Magazine is for the urban Indiana Jones—the intrepid explorer of hidden territories within a city. Infiltration runs stories about underground maintenance rooms, college steam tunnels, huge abandoned buildings, abandoned ships, rooftops and bridges high above the city, cavernous storm drains and underground catacombs, and more.

For stories with a political twist, a flair for style, and a wild imagination, try Jinx Magazine. Correspondents travel the world and return with stories from the streets of developing countries you won't read in the New York Times.

Tons more information is available at the Urban Explorers Network, Urban Adventures, and the Draining webring. For exploring college campuses, check out the college tunnels Google Group. The college tunnels page (possibly defuct) has a big list of links to other college tunnels sites. More urban exploration sites exist for Ohio (and here) and OSU. National Geographic has a generic diagram of what can be found underground in New York City.

Free Running

I saw a show on the Learning Channel which profiled "Jump London." This was an event where guys got together to climb up and leap between buildings and scale various structures and landmarks. They could jump down one-story drop-offs and land with a somersault to absorb the fall. Sometimes they'd do a flip in mid air just to be all athletic about it. Like fictional superheroes, they have excellent control over their balance and have no fear as they inch along ledges and stuff. Here's a good description of this cool urban sport, free running, and here's a page with some great videos, like this one for instance.

Mammoth Cave

Well, this isn't urban exploration, but it kind of fits with this page (see sewer pipes story below).

I can't help wanting to check out stuff hidden beneath the ground, whether it's natural or man-made. Below are a series of photos I took of Alison on an "off-trail" tour in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. We entered through a magical metal door in the side of a hill in the woods and started down some steps, just like a regular walking tour. Then we climbed into a little hole in the wall on our hands and knees and disappeared. Thus began a three-hour, one-mile Introduction to Caving tour.

I was afraid I’d be claustrophobic at some point, especially at the keyhole, which was just about tall enough to squeeze my body through (and they’d warned us about it), but while there were several occasions where we had to crawl on our stomach like that, the passageway was always wide enough or opened up again soon enough so I was never scared. We once squirmed by a 15-foot pit, on our stomachs (see middle picture; the pit is on the left).

Alison clambers through Mammoth Cave tunnels.
And a good day to you!
Mammoth Cave contains 365 miles of known tunnels in a 6 by 7 mile area down to about four hundred feet where the water table is. We stopped in one room and turned off our lights and listened to the silence. A guide told a story about someone who lagged way behind on a tour and then got stuck in the cave when the lights were turned off. Without a light source he had to wait 24 hours for the next tour. (They were only given twice a week, but fortunately he’d been on the Saturday tour). He sang songs to save himself from the silence and isolation, a common coping mechanism. The story sprung to life on the blank slate of my darkened field of vision. A light came on and intruded on my mental picture like someone turning on a TV in a dark room. Soon everyone’s lights were back on, and my field of vision filled. I remember being amazed at reacquiring the sense of sight, of miraculously knowing everything that was present in front of me again. I was a blind man with vision restored.

The route was strenuous. It was great to be so hands-on with the cave, squirming through the cracks you’d normally wonder where they went, sitting in secluded rooms no normal tour would get to be in, learning about caving, and just basically pushing the limits of the average cave tour. We wore helmets, head lamps, and knee pads, and by the end we were covered in reddish cave dust. There were no lights other than our helmets and flashlights. We walked through narrow single-file passageways with ceilings about a person-height high. We didn't see any fancy cave formations anywhere except some occasional fragile crystalline coral stuff on some walls and some million-year-old untouched dirt on some rock shelves.

Finally, sweaty and filthy, we emerged onto a regular tour pathway with railings, paved trails, and fancy lighting. We saw some huge curtain-like formations on our way out. And soon enough we were reintroduced to the thick humid air of Kentucky.

Scott smiling in a storm drain, seconds before the rats came.
Storm Drain Story

Near the end of a day of work I took a break and decided to sit by the creek at the bottom of a bridge. There I noticed an entrance to a storm sewer pipe. I looked in and thought, this is my chance to go in a pipe underground like I’d read about in Infiltration magazine (see sidebar above)! So I crept inside.

The pipe was four feet in diameter, so I had to duck down and walk in a crouch. There was a little stream of water running down the middle that made walking a little harder. It was rather tight inside. I kept exclaiming to myself how crazy this was. It was really scary. I didn’t like it in there, but I wanted to keep going. I wanted to peek around a curve just a little ways ahead, so I kept moving, conquering my fear with every inch of progress. I got to the curve, and there was just inky blackness ahead of me. I couldn’t tell if right in front of me there was a deep hole or a floor, so I didn’t go further. Way down the pipe I saw a light. A long ways down. It was pretty eerie. So much blackness, and you could only judge the distance by how tiny the tube was where it was lit up. I was happy to get the heck out of there, but I decided I’d come back with a flashlight.

I worked another couple of hours, and then I came back with a flashlight. I jumped right into the tube again and made it to the curve. I could stand up there; it was under a manhole. It was weird, looking down at the pipe near my feet that I’d just come out of. I felt just a little trapped.

Below are some photos of a minor tunnel underneath a basement at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately it doesn't connect into the university's vast campus-wide network of underground corridors.
What's under that manhole? A dusty crawlspace!
I decided I’d try going further to investigate a light. I started out quickly, watching the ground go by below me. It was a long way. Imagine an enclosed space you have to travel through. Eventually you travel so far that you start to feel like it’s constricting you, and you can’t get out easily if you need to. What if I wanted to bust out? I felt myself getting scared and could imagine what it’d be like if suddenly I panicked and couldn’t stand up and get out of this cement tomb fast enough. It didn’t help when I stopped and looked up at the ceiling by my head. My nervousness was starting to snowball. I was too far in the tunnel! Then I started singing the first song that popped into my head, Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado by John Denver. Singing made me happy, and the effort kept my mind from wandering to horrible thoughts. It relaxed me enough to keep going. Finally I made it to the light. It was another little room that I could stand up in, but it was kind of scary to leave the tube and go into the room, because then my perspective of the tube became that of a small opening at my feet. But I forced myself to stand up and look up at the grate above. It was surrounded by grass with cars whizzing by nearby. I could push up on it and get out if I really needed to, probably.

My goal accomplished, I started to beat it back out, singing Farewell Andromeda, a happier song. I got a third of the way back and suddenly didn’t feel scared anymore. I turned around and went back to the grate for another look. Then I went back in and stopped for a break. I could sing a certain note and it would reverberate through the pipe at three times the volume. It was kind of quiet and cozy there. I played around with the flashlight. The nearness of the ceiling was exciting but no longer scary. There wasn’t much left for me to do, so I left. The trip turned into an interesting psychological experiment.

I checked out the manholes at street level. The longest section I’d climbed through was about 50 yards long to the grating. Then there was another manhole another 150 yards down, which would be way too far to go I think. Maybe I could do it, now that I think about it. Easier said than done, though, when you’re faced with the long narrow blackness and find yourself a long ways inside it. Besides, your legs really cramp up from all that crouching. Some day I'll find a bigger storm sewer!

Here's a wonderfully dramatic storm sewer story with an almost unbelievable ending.


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