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Analysis: For a few months now, we’ve been tracking down some of the region’s most puzzling urban legends: the mysterious downtown blob, a rumored floating bridge and now, the tunnels beneath UCSD.
Years before anti-war protests became commonplace at the burgeoning UCSD campus, designers had already built a network of underground tunnels for utility pipes, electrical fixtures and communication cables.
The university “placed all underground utilities in walk-through utility tunnels so that regardless of later construction, they will always be accessible,” the school noted in this 1962 news release. “These ‘tunnels’ are large enough to accommodate all utilities except water and sewer [and] … transport everything from heating and cooling water to a fire-alarm system to a closed circuit TV channel.”
Although it’s possible National Guard troops could have also moved through the narrow tunnels, the early existence of utilities and other infrastructure shows that they weren’t intended for handling riot response. The university notes on a website devoted to historical trivia that they often attracted illicit parties, pranks and skateboarders.
In November, we published a list of urban legends submitted by readers that included this tale. In response, several UCSD alumni shared stories of their own exploits in the tunnels. Edna Myers, 61, of South Park, recalled sneaking into them during her freshman year in 1968.
“Some of the boys were trying to impress some of the girls, so they took us on a tour,” she wrote in an email. “The tunnel was large enough to walk upright in. People said there were other tunnels, but that is the only one I was ever in myself.”
Four years earlier, the university accepted its first class of undergraduate students. The tunnels, built in the early 1960s, were designed to help support the growing campus population and efficiently connect the new buildings stretched across campus. Then UCSD became a hotbed of protests against the Vietnam War.
By 1965, the anti-war protests started to attract local media attention. A year later, when Tom Shepard enrolled at the university, the National Guard storyline had already become urban legend. He too decided to visit them.
“There was no indication that they were used for anything other than housing utilities,” Shepard, a local political consultant, said in retrospect. “There was a lot of paranoia back then.”
If the National Guard had a plan for the tunnels, Norm Stamper would have been one of the first police officers to know about it. As protests became more frequent in the late 1960s, San Diego police assigned Stamper to spy on radical groups based at the campus.
Since he patrolled UCSD at the time and specifically monitored for potential riots, I asked Stamper whether the urban legend has any truth to it. “My hunch is that it’s a myth, perhaps arising out of basement corridors,” he wrote in an email. “Who knows.”
A spokesman for the California National Guard also said he did not know whether the tale is accurate. But even if it were true, he said, it’s not something the National Guard would likely confirm because operational plans are confidential.
Today, the tunnels are primarily used for their original purpose — channeling utilities and cabling below the bustling campus above. They’ve become a crucial part of the university’s nationally recognized power grid, which cuts down on energy costs by moving heated and cooled water between buildings for air conditioning.
Although the tunnels are off-limits without permission, university officials urge people to stay away for their own safety. If water pipes accidentally burst and emit hot steam, anyone nearby could be badly scalded or suffocate to death, university officials say.
Citing those safety concerns, a university spokesman insisted that we not write this Fact Check and publicize the tunnels’ existence. We declined the request since the tunnels are already well-known. The urban legend spans several decades, information about the tunnels is readily available online and the university itself acknowledges them on an official website devoted to historical trivia.
The spokesman declined to say how often campus police respond to alarms in the tunnels, but in 2004, a university official told The Guardian that incidents were rare, and after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, police boosted security as an extra precaution.
Although the tunnels exist, we’ve called this urban legend False since there’s no evidence they were built specifically for the National Guard, even if the guard had contingency plans to use them.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Clarification: We’ve updated the photo cutline after several readers notified us that the image was from later than 1965, the year the university says it was taken.
What claim should we Fact Check next? Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.