GLOOMY TUNNELS UNDER GUELPH – For more info on local ‘urbex’ see post on ‘Dracula’s Garden’ here
(Here is a wierd little adventure, it might be of interest to urban explorers, I tend to enjoy stuff that might be considered bizzare by some)
In the middle of Guelph there is a high hill, “The Church of our Lady”, an imposing gothic cathedral, crowns it. On this crisp winter afternoon my breath smokes before me, I look up at the many ornate towers, they soar into the vivid blue of a cloudless sky. The sun is already sinking and in the late afternoon light, the cold white dolomite of the twin spires blush a warm orangey colour. In a few short hours a January darkness will have cloaked the town, the stars will glitter in their remote, impersonal way and any pub goer, stumbling home will feel the vicious nip of the season. Down a broad flight of steps in front of the cathedral is my favourite pub, “The Albion”. It is a crusty old watering hole with shaded patio, well known amongst university students. I drank there myself in my younger days and still visit that venerable establishment from time to time. One of the front rooms, cluttered with scarred pine tables serves the locals; the bar maid walks beneath the television set, it is well past its prime. I inhale the yeasty perfume of spilled beer. It is here, fuelled by the product of our local brewery, that I have dreamed up many a crackpot scheme.
Behind the cathedral, on the opposite side of the hill, there is a well-established neighbourhood. Towering maples hang skeletal in the snow but in the summer they droop over quiet, shaded gardens. It is ferns, mosses and hosta that are most abundant. The houses are expensive, solid brick and stone, hid amidst the lush foliage. Yorkshire Road cuts up alongside a depression that connects to the far more expansive Eramosa Valley. This dip demarcates the base of the hill upon which the cathedral stands, it can be seen to run up from the nearby railway embankment in a sinuous, meandering depression, past Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute, and up to exhibition Park. Until as recently as the 1950’s a stream ran exposed to the sky along this hollow. It was called Pond Creek and it along with several other lesser creeks comprised the micro watersheds of the Speed and Eramosa Rivers.
As Jeremy Chute, a Guelph cartographer points out, to manage space and storm water better, urban planners generally bury urban creeks in culverts and in this way they can build over them forgetting they are even there. Jeremy says it is possible to trace Pond Creek’s path by layering older maps over more current topographical maps. Although the stream can no longer be seen on the surface, evidence of its continued existence is everywhere. Apparently GCVI had been flooded on a number of occasions and cracks in the sidewalk cement and roadway tar hints at an unstable soil beneath. There appears to be a fault running along on the east side of the road and numerous houses have noticeably cracked and twisted bricks along that flaw.
Up on Lyon’s Avenue amid the fragrance of aged cedars and large, established houses there is a turn-of-the century stone bridge in a backyard, the creek once flowed beneath it and kids skipped school to catch trout along its shady banks. Today there is no sign of water; it has mysteriously vanished. In the 1940’s much of the creek was still open right up as far as London road, but because of concerns pertaining to kids fooling around in the culverts the creek was covered over in the 50’s. It is said that where Lyons Avenue intersects with Campion, the underground Creek forks, one branch heads up to “Our Lady of Lourds School” and the other heads on towards Exhibition Park. The headwaters of the buried Pond Creek is a swampy patch of ground near the school, it is filled with reeds and purple loosestrife. An oily, polluted filth leaks into the drain and from there it heads along its hidden channel down to the Eramosa River.
Secret tunnels and buried waterways have always appealed to me, I suppose I have never fully grown up but then again I am counting that you, the reader, suffers from that same lack of maturity. I would find the world a far duller and gloomier place without that incredible sense of curiosity and mystery that I am so burdened with. It was this strange obsession that drove me on to search for the outfall of the buried Pond Creek and by late January of 2005 I felt that I had met with some success.
The initial discovery had been made during a solo venture into the storm sewers beneath the city. The lone drainer (Explorer X) had managed to access a large trunk tunnel that meandered up a gentle incline from somewhere near the river. Initially the sewer is comprised of a rectangular concrete box, it eventually makes a transition to eight-foot high-corrugated pipe. Raccoons regularly traverse the lower section of the system; their paw prints are clearly etched in the ochre slime of the concrete. It would appear that they descend into the tunnel from a narrow pipe, wander along for a distance of several hundred meters in a shallow running stream and then leave again by one of several narrow culverts.
On the initial exploration the lonely drainer had felt the need to touch base with the surface and also to orient himself in relation to his surroundings. It was an exploratory mission, the intent to find the old Pond Creek tunnels. Up a cylindrical shaft toward the frost-encrusted bottom of a manhole cover the “Explorer X” crept and reaching the rusting portal he poked the hooked neck of a tiny dental mirror. Because of the size of the mirror the field of vision was extremely limited and it took some significant amount of adjustment to focus on a recognizable object. The closer ones eye gets to the mirror the larger the field of view so there about 20 feet up a staple ladder, with eye pressed up against the bottom of the filthy manhole cover the drainer clung.
First impressions led “Explorer X” to believe that he was just beneath a parking lot but after rotating his mirror around for the second time it became apparent that the cars that had surrounded the hiding hole had begun to move, he was in the middle of an intersection. A red van that had appeared parked before was now bearing down upon the man hole cover the mirror was pulled beneath the surface in the nick of time and the cover echoed with a fleshy thumping sound as the tires passed over, the drainer survived with no more than rust in his eye. Cautiously poking the mirror up again there was a quick scan for oncoming traffic and then a resumption of the location puzzle. Most noteworthy to the hidden explorer was a distinctive green eaves trough on a nearby house. A pedestrian walked close by, oblivious to the subterranean periscope, I wonder what he might have thought if he had noticed an eyeball glaring up at him from the sewers. Would he kick salt or slush in the curious eye, walk by with a knowing strut or run like hell. Again a car thundered by just missing the dental mirror and in the interests of the mirrors safety the underground journey was resumed. Surface recognition of the green eaves trough later in the day helped to ascertain the likely location of the mysterious creek and subsequent explorations quickly focused in on the old stream passage.
In a section of tunnel where the roof diminished to 3 feet high, an ice coated shaft dropped in from the side. The water had frozen in tiny stepped ledges and the icy cascade glittered like some fantastic jewel when illuminated by the adventurer’s headlamp. He had forgotten his gloves at home but decided to climb the incline anyway. Wriggled into the chute “Explorer X” wormed his way upward, bracing his feet on one wall and his back against the other. By employing a typical caving chimney technique he was soon rolling over the upper lip and cursing the freezing water that had pooled there before it flowed beneath the ice.
Impressions of the passage at the top of the incline were favourable. From the age of the construction and estimated location it appeared that the vanished Pond Creek had been rediscovered. The limestone wall was far older than the main passage and by the decomposing concrete ceiling, some pieces torn away and hanging by strands of rusty reinforcing wire it was obvious that undue disturbance would be hazardous. For some time the drainer crouched gingerly in that spot contemplating his discovery. With a hollow plunking sound water trickled over a slimy step and a strong breeze gusted up the icy shaft. The airflow was encouraging as the presence of bad air is always of concern to drainers. In an old buried tunnel the atmosphere and contaminants are usually suspect. Methane from rotting organic matter is explosive and odourless carbon monoxide, pooled in low areas from an idling car engine can lull an unwary explorer into a fatal slumber.
Returning with a companion the drainer continued his explorations the following day. The tunnel beyond the chute zigzags along in a low concrete gully, rusty metal protrusions jut out from the walls and the feeling is one of claustrophobia. Despite the cramped feeling, it was the curiosity of what lay ahead beyond the next bend that spurred the drainers on. From the gloom in front a blocky limestone arch materialized, it was the appearance of some really decrepit tunnel. It was an explorer’s bonanza, like navigating some medieval dungeon. “Whoh, this looks really creepy”, Joshua, remarked, “I think Ill wait here.” He was coaxed forward a little further but the spiders were large and white as snowflakes. “Come forward and see this, there is a monstorous spider hanging here.’ Josh was far from impressed. “ If these spiders right here in front of me are not large, I will not move another inch into your nightmare.”
The spiders in this tunnel are most unusual, there are some smaller brown ones but for the most part they hang upside down from the arched roof, long, white, spindly legs clutching at the ceiling, their bodies encased in a sphere of froth. I suppose it might be some sort of technique for surviving the winter or possibly a way to nurture the young, maybe they feed on the living body of an aged adult. If spiders aren’t bizarre, nothing is. Who knows what to expect from those incredible creatures. This forgotten passage is a spider’s paradise, the mortar has fallen from many of the joints between the blocks, and no doubt there are thousands of them in the crevices.
About 100 meters into the limestone passages the air is far staler and ones breath immediately fogs the tunnel. Holding your breath the mist slowly clears by drifting deeper into the system. Hunched over as you are it soon becomes very difficult to progress, your legs are burning from the unusual posture and your lungs are choking from their exertion and their inability to expand as they would normally if one were standing upright. The leading drainer was by this time alone again; Joshua was sitting on a rock protrusion and the light from his flashlight soon faded into oblivion. Through course banks of sand the explorer progressed, over rusting cast iron pipes, beneath a dense tangle of gauzy cobwebs. Breathing was difficult and in winter gear the explorer was soon soaked with sweat. Water, as though tinted by dirty paintbrushes was shin deep and quite opaque, something was stirring the filth up in front, maybe a rat or some sort of muskrat. “Explorer X relates that for the most part the creek bed is quite shallow but in one or two spots there is some sort of pothole, it comes quite unexpectedly and your wellie is immediately filled with cold and dirty water.
“Explorer X remarked that he had felt some sort of presence there, it was an unnerving feeling, creepy and disturbing, different from the adventurous adrenaline that one normally surfs upon when investigating an unknown drain system. Looking back along the tunnel, there was only haze, out of breath and feeling quite exhausted “Explorer X” and company pressed on. Ahead, the tunnel had changed to a square shape again, it follows in this way for some significant distance and after close to 40 minutes duck walk and crawling the most spectacular find thus far was made.
About 15 feet beneath the surface, as could be judged by an upward leading shaft there is another old section of tunnel. The explorers had been coaxed onward through the more standard square tunnels by an echoing dripping sound from somewhere up ahead. The first old section was along an orientation of 350 degrees, this section, deeper in, tends a little more toward the west at 309 degrees. This span of passage is more elliptical in shape, being composed of quarried dolomite blocks, a wider and even more exciting find. The floor is of moist cobble and the roof is a veritable forest of soda straws and tiny calcite curtains. It is a most spectacular display and explorer X and companion were most excited, they stooped low to avoid damaging the rare formations, some in excess of two inches in length. Though not as long as those in another well known storm drain mecca – “Stairway to Paradise”, they are far more numerous.
The passage eventually dips into a murky pool, knee deep in filthy water the explorers tempt a soaker, but millimetres from the top of their boots. They climb up over a protrusion and on beyond, more square tunnel again. It must continue up as far as London Road. I suspect it is unlikely to be to much further on and thereafter I can imagine that the route would change to this older architecture again. Another trip is planned and it is hoped that the expedition can reach at least as far as the Lyon’s Ave fork, a journey of some kilometres, possibly a trip that will take the good part of a day.
The possibility of using “big Wheel tricycles” was discussed during the return journey. It would certainly be easier than that tedious combination of duck walk and crawling, after in excess of an hour and a half of that activity ones legs feel as though they are on fire. I suppose it would be a most unique way for grown men to travel along under Guelph, the trundling roar of the big wheel plastic tires, sparkling tassels fluttering from the chopper handle bars, the low slung seat allowing the intrepid explorers a sitting exploration of the lengthy square tunnels, headlamps lighting the way in front, head just barely skimming along beneath the concrete and stone roof above.
I spoke to Patrick Cross, my paranormal adviser and asked why it was that “Explorer X” had felt so psychologically disturbed in the first older section of tunnel. Patrick explained that in such buried tunnels, time stands still, it is preserved space from another time, a bit like a time capsule. Patrick pointed out that that ancients travelled underground routes and it would not surprise him if the explorer had been close to some human remains. Who knows what cast-offs and detrital lies waterlogged in that muddy stream bed, old coins, a fob watch, treasured possessions, memories of times happy and sad. Most amazing to me is the location of these tunnels they pass no more than 200 meters from my house, I had never even suspected their existence. What Else lies under there? Where next, I am bombarded by rumours of various tunnels beneath the city, would you believe a tunnel from the Albion, up toward the church, it sounds interesting, I wonder if the proprietor will spill the beans for me?