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Notes From Underground

Malcolm Howard sinks to new depths in search of the truth about Colorado Springs tunnels



We step into the tunnel at 6:20 p.m. A light drizzle moistens the ground as distant thunderheads obscure the foothills. Most of the gray-blue clouds are to the west, not upstream of our destination, a series of ever-narrowing drainage tunnels along Shooks Run, a half-mile east of downtown Colorado Springs.

Still we're worried. Any sudden downpour could easily catch us by surprise, filling the pipes and washing us downstream like the wrung-out shopping bags that plaster the trunks of creek-side trees.

Climbing down an eroded embankment, it's easy to get inside the first cavern, a 20-foot-tall tunnel that extends 1,000 feet into darkness. As the echoes of our voices lengthen, we click on our flashlights, looking down as an ankle-deep flow rushes over the sandbars on the tunnel's concrete floor.

Because of the weather, we've decided to take only a quick walk through the larger tunnel, scouting out smaller ones to try on a dry day. Soon, we find one: a corrugated steel tributary, roughly 4 feet in diameter, that cuts in from the east.

"You guys wanna do just a little short hike up there?" asks our guide, a neighborhood native who used to spelunk these man-made caves as a kid.

"Sure, let's check it out," says another, and before we know it, we are a hundred feet in, pushing toward the unknown with uncertain weather brewing above. Already, I am beginning to question our collective wisdom: Aside from the flash flood danger, these tunnels often trap carbon dioxide and monoxide, which settle in low places near roadways. Later, I learn that they can also house toxic and flammable gases such as methane.

But at this moment, all I know is that I am heading into a very small, dark, wet place behind a guy whose flashlight is already on the fritz.

Tunnel rats

A few days later, I'm following another team of tunnel rats as they mole their way from manhole to manhole in a new subdivision bordering the city's eastern prairie. It's a pretty different picture from the ad hoc spelunking of a few days before.

Everyone on this crew wears hard hats and orange vests, and the three who are actually going underground are festooned with safety gear: climbing harnesses, sensors that monitor dangerous gasses and oxygen levels, spark-free flashlights and small tanks containing five minutes of breathable air.

You could say these guys are part of an elite team, but the word "elite" seems a little out of place in the realm of storm sewers and drainage. Still, all members of the city's Confined Spaces crew are trained in numerous underground rescue, evacuation and safety procedures. Most of them have spent a good part of the last decade in cramped places where the sun never shines.

I came expecting to get at least a quick walk down a tunnel. But not today. To supervisor Gary Knopp, there are enough dangers lurking down yonder to make the notion of a tag-along journalist untenable. Too much liability, he says.

I would have fought this injustice, but my legs were still so sore from my own crouched-over hike a few days earlier, I wasn't sure I could even get down the storm-sewer ladder.

As the team readies for another routine descent, Knopp checks off a list on a Confined Space entry permit. Oxygen level: check. Methane: check. One of only a few teams of its kind in the country, the Confined Spaces crew isn't looking for urban adventure; they're part of a city-wide effort to make sure that drain pipes are installed correctly by developers before the one-year warrantee period on those storm sewers expires.

"In years past, contractors got away with a lot of stuff," says Knopp. "So now, before anyone signs off on anything we go check it out."

That's why they take with them another critical piece of gear: a digital camera. "We had a big pipe job in the Broadmoor [area] and we found we had a lot of problems," Knopp said. "The contractor basically flew all the way back from Nebraska to call me a liar. So we take pictures of everything."

Over the years, the crew has clicked thousands of snapshots: A contractor who used tar to patch a hole in a sewer pipe, another who used cardboard to seal a joint, and dozens of cases where pipes aren't joined properly, or are not installed at the right grade.

"This program has saved the taxpayers millions of dollars," explains Randy Zettlemoyer, a manager with the city streets division. "Because once the warrantee expires, if there's something wrong with a pipe, then those repairs become the city's responsibility."

The Confined Spaces crew has certainly seen their share of cases where un-fixed problems led to massive headaches for the city. The most dramatic examples come after leaking pipes erode the soil around the pipe. Then the whole thing collapses, leaving a large pit in someone's yard, or in the middle of the street.

On today's sewer excursion, a relatively easy downward glide through a 56-inch drain, the crew finds mostly minor problems that will nevertheless require some major digging. A manhole installed in the wrong place; a few ladders improperly installed and a few unauthorized under-drains, which Knopp says could cause water to back up into neighborhood homes in a rain storm.

The vortex

But cracked pipes and faulty manholes are not the only things this crew comes across in the underground. For one thing, there's the team's official skateboard. Quarry from an earlier expedition, the board is now used by lead man Brian Merkle to get deep into tight corners with his camera and flashlight.

"Heck, we even found a washing machine once," Knopp added, recalling an episode where some teenage burglars in Briargate set up an underground party den in a storm sewer. "They were ripping off RVs and putting the stuff down in the storm drain. They had a recliner set up. They had a stereo. They also had hay bales down there and they caught on fire because they were smoking. So we had to go down there and get all that stuff out. It was a big party pad."

Then there were the kids who used a storm sewer on Constitution Avenue to steal beer. The kids would sit there looking out the opening in the storm drain and when the beer truck would come to deliver the beer, they'd shimmy out and throw cases down the storm drain.

"People are often wanting us to block [the storm sewers] off, but if kids get in there and there is a problem, they need to be able to get out," Knopp notes, adding that the team has often been called on to look for kids -- sometimes in rain storms.

How about groups of middle-aged adults? I wonder to myself.

Kids aren't the only ones drawn to the underground. Take the woman who took up residence in a storm sewer after her cat got hit by a car. "The cat crawled into the storm sewer," Knopp said. "She missed her cat and wanted to be near it, I guess. Blankets, pillows, cat food. She went up as far as she could but the cat kept moving. So she just stayed down there. She just loved her cat and wanted to be down there with it. We run into stuff like that all the time."

Like the couple who lived in a storm sewer near Chestnut Street for seven years. "The bottom was just covered with glass," recalled another crew member. "The place smelled like a bar, you know, like old beer. She threatened to sue us for kicking her out."

Crew members laugh, shrug, or shake their heads as they remember these episodes. But these aren't just funny episodes. They're cautionary tales. Like any professional trained in safety or emergency procedures, these guys see the potential for disaster lurking under every manhole.

"The one thing you want to look out for in these pipes is explosives," says point man Brian, referring to the possible build-up of methane.

And then there's all the unregulated illegal dumping. "You know, people have some fluid, they don't know how to get rid of it, they dump it in the storm sewer," Knopp says. "Who knows what could be down there like used motor oil, pesticides, hypodermic needles, spilt gasoline and paint."

But there are other dangers too. "I've got an article on my desk where a guy was caught in a vortex and sucked into one of these things," Knopp says.

"A vortex?" I ask.

"Well, he opened up the drain and the vortex sucked him right in," he said, referring to a case in New York where the suction inside the drain pipe pulled the victim to a watery doom.

The water chamber

A 2-inch-deep stream of water courses down the bottom of the drainage pipe, rippling over the corrugated steel. Looking ahead, my partners look like large crabs, their hands and feet splayed to the side in an attempt to avoid the dank stream below. After only 100 feet of this, we're all panting like dogs, stopping every 30 yards or so to take a break.

"What do you think? Should we go ahead?"

"As long as it's not raining too hard, I don't care," says our guide.

"Hey, we're here, right?" says another, coaxing us onward.

Here I am, 36 years old, doing a classically kid thing, trapped in a classic kid moment. Do I go ahead or wait behind in solidarity with the guy in our team who opted to stay behind due to the weather? Do I wimp out and do the smart thing, or do I take my chances, following the lead of those more daring? I decide to go forward.

"We're going to go another couple hundred feet," says one of the two crawling ahead.

Finally, I decide to head back to the safety of the larger tunnel. I've seen flash floods in the desert. I've seen cars toppling end over end. After about 30 painful steps back toward the larger tunnel, I hear their voices.

"Hey, Malcolm, come on. It's worth it!"

I turn around and once again head into the darkness.

Dark hollow

I don't know why people -- or perhaps I should say, some people -- are so fascinated with the underground. Sure there are practical reasons why teenagers, or homeless people, might turn a storm sewer into a party den: It's hidden, it's there, it's dry; cops don't patrol 'em.

But there's more to it than that. Pop culture has long romanced the underground with TV shows like Beauty and the Beast and The X-Files, while authors from Dostoevsky to Poe, H.G. Wells (heck, even Dante) have also weighed in on the unknowns of the underworld.

As for me, I was sucked into the vortex long ago. I built elaborate underground forts and bunkers, while other kids climbed trees. I've since given up on building bunkers, but I haven't lost the fascination.

While Colorado Springs ain't no New York City or Paris, with their elaborate, storied subways and sewers, it does have its share of interesting underground experiences. This city, after all, is home to one of mankind's most audacious underground projects, the cavernous bunker under Cheyenne Mountain that houses the brain center for North America's nuclear arsenal.

Built roughly 1,800 feet under solid granite, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center accommodates 800 workers at any given time with roughly 4.1 acres of floor space, says Capt. Aaron Spaans, a public affairs officer with NORAD. Two massive storage tanks hold a total of 6 million gallons of water in large caverns blasted from the rock.

If that's not enough, just to the west, in the late 1800s, miners and engineers turned the hills around Victor and Cripple Creek into a dangerous anthill of mine shafts and catacombs that now make hiking in some areas truly hazardous. In one of the most audacious tunnel projects, engineers carved the famous Carlton Tunnel, a 6.3-mile-long tunnel through granite and sandstone that allowed mine owners to lower the water table by several thousand feet. That, in turn, allowed miners to dig even deeper in their quest for gold.

Other, less dramatic acts of underground engineering dot the city. The older downtown area is replete with tunnels that carry utilities, mostly hot water, from central boilers to various buildings. The city's Pioneers Museum, for example, is connected via very narrow tunnels to the Alamo Hotel across Tejon Street. A similar system runs hot water to various buildings around Colorado College.

Some of the most famous tunnels built in the Pikes Peak area are noticeably absent from official history books, however. In the mining heyday, many hard-rock miners came down to Old Colorado City to spend their earnings at a strip of bars and brothels lining the south side of what is now West Colorado Avenue.

For those who didn't want to be seen entering the whorehouses, a series of tunnels were built connecting the brothels to legitimate businesses on the other side of the street. "The prim and proper gentlemen from Colorado Springs would ride the trolley up here, enter a store on the north side of the street, then walk through the tunnel to find a friendly hooker on the other side of the street," said Bob Spears, whose El Dorado building in Old Colorado City was once connected to what is now the restaurant and bar Meadow Muffins.

The tunnels, which were also used to ferry liquor, beer and other goods, were filled in during the 1930s. But the bricked-over entrances are visible in the basements of numerous businesses along Colorado Avenue.

Not all the local underground belongs to the manmade realm. For those willing to look for it, the natural labyrinth of tunnels in the hills around Manitou Springs offers some off-the-beaten-track spelunking. Though I've never been there, sources tell me the infamous Huggy's Cove has gotten somewhat trashed by its visitors and that many entrances have been filled in by the cave's owners due to the abuse.

That fact is ample proof of how we all take the underground for granted. For many of us, the underground is little more than a convenient carpet under which we sweep our liabilities: our trash, our toxic chemicals, our unsightly utility lines.

But this just scratches the surface. The fact is that even in the age of satellite communication, most of our daily business (be it our morning flush, two-egg breakfast, coffee and shower, movie with dinner or bedtime reading lamp) happens courtesy of the underground. Under any given street, there's a traffic jam of gas lines, fiber-optic telephone and cable TV wires, water mains, electric lines, storm sewers and sanitary sewer lines buried from view.

Drilling the light fantastic

Just north of Sam's Club on Academy Boulevard, Dean Hancock guides a 300-foot drill underneath one of the city's busiest north-south roadways. It's almost as busy above ground as it is underground.

To hit his target, a four-foot wide electric vault on the west side of the street, Hancock must guide his drill tip (which he cannot see) past city storm sewers, two fiber-optic cables, two telephone lines, a cable line, a water main and two electric lines.

The Colorado Springs Utilities worker has the help of some technology: a remote-control device that helps him locate and steer the drill head, a massive, pointed cudgel of hardened steel that weighs some 150 pounds.

It's a stressful job, and not just because he's dodging cars as he guides the drill across Academy. As Hancock's boss, supervisor Tom Hutchison, notes, one false move could cause thousands and possibly millions of dollars in lost-business costs. "With the fiber-optic lines, if you hit or damage them, just the downtime itself [while the cable is repaired] is something like a million dollars a minute," he said.

And Hancock knows how easily his drill could take a wrong turn. "One time, up in Denver a long time ago, me and another guy were the only two guys in crew," he recalls, "and the drill hit a rock and popped out. It came out of the ground, went through like three fences. Next thing you know there's a homeowner going, 'Hey, hey, stop!' I walked down there and we had about 200 feet of rod going through all these picket fences."

Stories like that one are why crews take lots of precautions, Hutchison says. The most important precaution is participation in a program that requires utilities and cable companies to call a toll-free number to find out what's underground before they dig. (Anyone with a line through the dig area has 48 hours to come out and locate their line. Anyone doing some digging -- be it for a fence post, or a fish pond -- should call the line: 1-800-922-1987). "It just takes one backhoe or one swipe of the shovel to wipe out communications for half of Colorado Springs," Hutchison notes.

But Hancock's drilling project is just one of dozens of small electricity tunnels being drilled all over town. On any given day, Hutchison has 17 crews working on various new installations, trying to keep up with all the new growth. Most are small jobs. But there are the mega-cable projects too. Last year, city utilities installed 13 miles of cable between Drake Power Plant and Cottonwood Substation, near Chapel Hills Mall, the second largest underground transmission project in the country at the time.

Though most of the new cable (which is housed in a 3-foot-wide, concrete-filled conduit) could be put in a trench, CSU had to bore massive tunnels under Monument Creek and the Woodmen-Academy interchange. The drill bit on the massive auger the utilities used was roughly 3-feet wide.

"The advantage to all this boring is that we don't have to disturb any of the environment," says Mark Swan, with the Colorado Springs Utilities, noting that the tunnel drilled by the 3-foot auger ran 40 feet under the bed of Fountain Creek.

People who lose their flower beds to cable company crews may not see it that way, but Swan says it's a lot better than the alternative -- a massive trench dug down the sidewalk or street every time the utilities company needs to make a repair or lay new cable. "At least this way, it's just one hole at each end," he said.

Enemy mine

Soon I see the dim glow of their flashlights, ricocheting down the tunnel. It's a good thing. I'm getting pretty winded. Is it due to lack of oxygen? Or is it just hard exercise, hiking bent over like this? Several long minutes later I join them in their newfound lair, a stone basin about 12-feet tall made from cut stone blocks. The top is curved like the ceiling of a cathedral.

"This is what I remember, these old tunnels," says Charles, recalling his childhood. "This is probably 100 years old in here."

On each end of the chamber, two tunnels come in from different directions. One of them is completely full of sand, forming a beach that's littered with bottles and raccoon carcasses. The set-up looks like the critter drunk himself to death, but it probably died the way we would die in a flash flood: swept down in a torrent of water until it got caught in the swirling eddies of the chamber.

"So Charles, why are you so fascinated with tunnels?"

"I dunno. I really don't know. I used to work in the mines. I really enjoyed that."

"Really, where?"

"Creed. Homestake. I just feel comfortable in the ground."

For the past few months, I've been getting to know Charles and I've learned that, as a kid, he used to explore the tunnels and culverts of the neighborhoods. Before Charles, I had never heard anyone refer to a drainage tunnel as "beautiful." "It's just a real nice tunnel," he would say, describing what to most of us would be just another drainage culvert.

Of course it's dangerous being underground, he says, looking up at the ceiling of our newfound hangout. "Some of these bricks could fall down."

Directly above us, there's a spot where foot-long stone bricks have dislodged from the ceiling. Beneath my feet, several large rectangular chunks of limestone are scattered.

Hmm. Maybe I should stand somewhere else.

Tunnel vision

As the camera cruises the murky bottom of an 8-inch sewage pipe, we watch from the safety of a white van parked next to a manhole. On the video screen, little mounds of soapsuds cruise over a murky, brown sea toward the camera's lens. They look like mini icebergs.

"Someone's doing their laundry," says James Wagoner, a city utilities inspector who's part of closed-circuit TV inspection team that uses a remote-control robot camera to inspect sewer lines. His cousin Larry, also part of the team, looks on as the camera, a missile-shaped robot of sorts with six rubber wheels hums effortlessly upstream.

Then the murky brown water starts getting deep and the screen shows the nose of the camera ducking into the brine. Instinctively, I wince and hold my breath as chunks of effluent swirl before the lens.

The two Wagoners don't flinch at any of this, however. Why should they? They're not getting dirty and they've seen pictures like this a thousand times. Like the Confined Spaces crew, they're looking for problems -- in this case, roots clogging the pipe -- that can then be easily pinpointed and cleared out before they do serious damage. They also spend much of their time inspecting new pipe in new developments to make sure it's installed properly before the city takes over liability. Without the technology, crews might have to dig up large sections of pipe to find problems.

Though these guys are spared the pleasure of ever entering the sewers, they do occasionally see some interesting sights. Like the Confined Spaces team, they say they've never seen any rats, but they've seen plenty of raccoons, spiders and mice. "We saw a snake down there one time," says Larry. "It was striking at the camera. It would back up then turn around, strike again."

They also get their share of bizarre requests from homeowners. "One person called and asked if we could find their dentures because they had flushed them down the toilet by accident," James recalled with a chuckle. "I was like, 'You really want 'em back if we find 'em?'"

Light at the end of the tunnel

Sitting deep inside a network of underground pipes, we turn off our flashlights and listen. The sound of tricking water reverberates through the metal tube. I remember how two city sewer engineers told me a few days earlier how fascinating they thought their jobs are. Heck, most people's eyes glaze over when they hear the word "drainage," but these guy's faces lit up as they explained the complexity of guiding massive amounts of fluid downstream.

As for people like us, sitting in the dark inside this old tunnel, I think it's something different. For one thing, there's the solitude. We're trespassing, but for this moment, the place is ours. No one else ever comes here. There are no footprints or graffiti and our flashlights have brought the first light to this little grotto for months, possibly years. Sure, a city crew could pop a manhole and get inside this tunnel a lot easier -- or clean it with a high-pressure vacuum -- but that doesn't count.

"So Charles, what was the craziest thing that ever happened to you in a tunnel as a kid?"

"I think it was in this tunnel. We climbed into it [upstream] but we didn't think we could get back out. So we went downstream. By the time we got to the end here, it was half full of mud and then it had water on top of that. We had to crawl over that with our heads above the water. There was maybe a foot of air at the top."

I make a mental note to forbid my son any such excursion in the future.

When we finally leave the large tunnel about an hour and a half after entering, the sunlight at the end of the tunnel is a soft blue. The trees growing around the tunnel entrance create a shady cave of their own over a steep canyon of rusty iron and cracked concrete that keeps the crumbling creek walls from caving in.

As we near the exit, I realize we're not the only ones who've ventured inward. Signs of human visitation are everywhere: graffiti, beer bottles. This tunnel, it turns out, is a pretty popular spot. Outside, a light rain falls through the sunshine. A massive double rainbow appears in the western sky.

It's good to be back above ground.

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