PAUL GRONDAHL Staff writer
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: I1

Date: Sunday, October 3, 1993

Like a character in the 1966 Raquel Welch science-fiction movie, "Fantastic Voyage," I have wandered the arteries beneath the skin of the cityscape.

From manholes to tunnels to sewers to culverts to steam ducts, I have traversed a forbidden zone of Albany -- what constitutes the collective cellar of the Capital Region. An early warning: This kind of urban spelunking is not encouraged and generally is not legal, because most of these areas are private property and remain locked. Access is rare and requires special permission, which was granted for purposes of this article. Unescorted, it's also dangerous.

These subterranean urban haunts are home to slithering serpents. Humongous rats. Noxious odors.

In talking to people who work underground, a common theme emerges. They wouldn't trade the job for anything. Eerily quiet, their work environment is climate controlled year-round, cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And bosses rarely check up on them down there.

Of course, they do have to test for deadly gases and for pockets of "dead air" in which air devoid of any oxygen could kill in seconds.

So, climb down for this below-ground tour of some of the area's best-kept underground secrets.

Underground waterfall, Albany

Deep within an overgrown, wooded ravine, sheltered by a moss-streaked grotto of shale cliffs cut by its above-ground predecessor, roars one of Albany's curious sites of unnatural history, "The Underground Waterfall."

There, below a heavy iron grate, a frothy cascade of water tumbles noisily about 30 feet through an old brick culvert eight feet wide and down into the earth.

Very few people know of this man-made diversion to the Beaver Kill, a small creek moved underground to precipitate development and the creation of Lincoln Park several decades ago. It is located in the ravine bordered by the park and Delaware Avenue and the Thomas O'Brien Academy of Science and Technology (formerly School 24) and the former Hinckel Brewery.

"There were a couple of breweries along the Beaver Kill and the falls was called Buttermilk Falls in the old days, because they dumped so much beer in the creek it looked like it had a head on it," says Paul Weinman, an education supervisor of the State Museum.

Weinman notes that the Beaver Kill was one of a handful of small creeks that meandered through downtown Albany in centuries past, creating swampy areas unfit for human habitation, spreading dysentery and chronic drinking water contamination that brought on symptoms known as "Albany throat."

New York Telephone cable vaults, downtown Albany

The question little kids invariably shout down the manhole openings when New York Telephone Co. cable splicers are working below the streets of Albany is this: "Are there any Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down there?"

James Hatch, who has spent 20 years underground splicing phone cable across the country, the last four with New York Telephone, disappoints the tykes when he informs them he has never come across a hero on the half-shell.

But he has encountered snakes, rodents of all stripes and boorish behavior from humans amid the manholes leading to hundreds -- the splicers couldn't calculate the precise number -- of cramped underground chambers allowing access to phone cables that dot the region's streets, both urban and suburban.

"Every once in a while, we'll pull a manhole cover and it will look like the snake pit scene from the Indiana Jones movie," says Dan Mosher, a cable splicer and Hatch's partner.

Bob Hughes, a New York Telephone manager who spent 10 years underground as a splicer, recalls his encounter with a serpent under Broadway in Menands.

"The cable I was working on started to move and it turned out to be a milk snake, four feet long and a couple inches thick," says Hughes. "It scared the living heck out of us."

Other hazards include syringes dropped down grates by drug addicts, juvenile delinquents who throw rocks and sticks down manholes at the splicers, electrical storms and deadly gases. Air quality tests are taken with an instrument that monitors for several dangerous gases, and oxygen is pumped underground. No smoking is allowed; gasoline leaking from gas station tanks occasionally occurs.

Despite the risks, it's a job they wouldn't trade.

"This is our thing," Hatch says. "The guys who work on the lines think we're crazy. But you won't get me working above ground."

On a recent morning, I accompanied Hatch and Mosher into a tunnel that stretches underneath the median and all four lanes of Central Avenue in Colonie. The tunnel hasn't been used since the 1956 closing of the Roessleville School.

The tunnel, like a similar one at the former Maywood School (closed in the late 1980s) near the Farmer Boy Diner, was used for students going to and from school to safely cross Central Avenue.

The tunnels are among New York Telephone's more unusual cable crossings, but the mother of all cable vaults resides two stories beneath the telephone company's main office at 158 State St. in downtown Albany.

"This is where all the phone lines for Albany come out of," Mosher says on a tour of the twisting, plunging brick tunnel lined with cables.

Albany County steam tunnels, Colonie

If you've seen the watery tunnel and dam chase scene in "The Fugitive," you've got a good idea of the steam tunnels, dug in the early 1930s, that run more than a half-mile from Albany County's boiler house at Albany Shaker Road, near the airport, under the Shaker Farm to the Ann Lee Nursing Home and the Albany County Jail.

I pulled on rubber boots and sloshed through ankle-deep water with Al Keating, a steam fireman in the boiler room, for a tunnel tour.

"When you hear a loud bang, it's nothing to get scared of," Keating says at the outset. "It's just the traps opening up. And be careful around the pipe leaks."

Leaky, crumbling and soon to be replaced by a more efficient heating system, the 60-year-old steam tunnels seem like some medieval torture chamber eight feet below ground.

"These tunnels made sense when oil was so cheap," says James Foley, building superintendent for the Ann Lee Nursing Home. "But it just isn't cost-effective to push heat 2,000 feet underground anymore."

A new, separate boiler is planned at the Ann Lee home next year, Foley says. The jail was cut off from the old steam tunnels -- which have been sealed, preventing escape by prisoners -- and refitted with its own heating system years ago. The tunnel continues to carry heat to historic buildings in America's first Shaker settlement.

Keating has seen plenty of visitors to the tunnels over the years, including mice, opossums and an occasional stray cat.

State University at Albany uptown campus

Beneath Edward Durell Stone's campus design's starkly angular alabaster shell lurks a two-mile labyrinth of tunnels and passageways linking virtually every building in the complex, from the power plant on Fuller Road to the academic podium several blocks away.

"People looking at the campus have no idea that we have all this stuff underground," says Dennis Stevens, assistant vice president for facilities, who lead a tour of these spaces with a childlike glee.

"If we're not back in two years, Vicki, send out the dogs," Stevens called out to a secretary before grabbing hard hats.

Beneath the academic buildings, service tunnels are as wide as a two-lane road. Maintenance workers zip up and down sharply plunging "crossover" routes and around the quarter-mile oval track in electric-powered yellow Cushman service carts, making repairs, carrying supplies, dumping garbage and making deliveries.

A drive-through passes some below-ground highlights: the barber shop, bowling alley and bookstore.

Another story below this underground roadway lies a level of smaller tunnels that carry heating pipes and computer lines.

The tunnels, a favorite student subway in cold weather, are locked up at 5 p.m. -- this warning is painted on each door. Janitors roust stragglers. Stevens says, to his knowledge, no student has been trapped down in the tunnels overnight.

College of Saint Rose, Albany

The old boiler room, built in the early 1920s and a campus landmark, has been torn down. But the tunnels connecting the academic buildings -- a mystery to students and faculty of recent vintage -- remain.

"They're forgotten spaces," says Leonard Sippel, vice president for finance and administration and keeper of the tunnels.

The locked and abandoned tunnels nowadays live mostly in the minds of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the order of nuns that founded the college in 1920.

"I remember we'd have to scooch down through the low parts, lifting up our habits off the dusty floor as we rushed back and forth through the tunnels. I can't tell you how many times I banged my head," Sister Rose Regina Smith, administrative assistant to the president, recalls with a laugh.

The tunnels are dusty, dank, poorly lighted and lined with pipes. They are no broader than an arm's width and between four and six feet high.

The nuns used the tunnels for a speedy commute between St. Joseph's Hall -- where they lived on the upper floors and gathered several times a day in a basement community room -- and the academic buildings where they taught classes.

"There was a lot of traffic 20 years ago and it was tough squeezing by each other," says Smith. She describes the nuns popping out of the tunnel, apparitions in black, to the startled looks of students.

As the religious community declined, so did the tunnels. From a peak of 70 sisters teaching and working at the college two decades ago, the number has dropped to 16 currently. And not one of the nuns lives in St. Joseph's Hall anymore; they were relocated to the provincial house in Latham and elsewhere.

Niagara Mohawk transformer vaults, downtown Albany

The walls are charred and caked with soot in the prison-cell-sized concrete block bunker 6 feet below the sidewalk in front of the Twin Towers on Washington Avenue.

It was in this transformer vault, in February, where several thousand volts of electricity surging through old, worn cables smoldered, burned and eventually built up into an explosion that shook the sidewalk and blew the 200-pound manhole cover about 10 feet into the air.

"Be careful not to touch anything down there," advised Dave Murray, a supervisor in Niagara Mohawk's subway department, which oversees a necklace of roughly 120 underground high-voltage transformer vaults that encircles downtown Albany and provides offices and businesses with their power needs.

Each vault, which is linked by hundreds of miles of cable but not physically connected, carries anywhere from 4,000 to 34,000 volts of juice. Fires and explosions are rare, interruption of service is non-existent since the 120-vault network has built-in backup capabilities.

The most common cause of transformer vault malfunctions are hungry rodents. "They just love to chew on that insulation," said Jim Stefanik, a NiMo subway supervisor, who has 18 years of experience as an underground cable splicer. When the animals gnaw through the rubber coating, it's bye-bye rodent -- and lights out for that transformer.

The most famous crispy critter was the rat that bit into 13,000 volts, blowing the top off a vault in front of the South Mall Tower. "It was that big," Stefanik says, his hands widening to a size approximating an alley cat. "I'm not kidding."

Empire State Plaza tunnels

That giant sucking sound you hear is but is the noise of Hudson River water being vacuumed all the way up the hill -- from sea level to an elevation of 101 feet -- to the Empire State Plaza through a 48-inch-diameter pipe, encased in a tunnel that stretches from a pump station at river's edge on the southern end of the Corning Preserve.

The pipe tunnel terminates at a vast warehouse beneath the Plaza Concourse level that houses one of the world's largest chill plants, which is responsible for cooling and heating the 60-acre state complex.

During the fall and winter, more than 50,000 gallons of 38<o Hudson River water surges each minute through the four-foot diameter pipe, passes through the chill plant and -- after being tapped for similar energy system usage by the Knickerbocker Arena -- is returned to the Hudson near the U-Haul building after its mile-long passage.

This constant recycling process returns the water "as clean or cleaner as when it came to us," said Tom Tubbs, a spokesman for the state Office of General Services.

Millions of gallons of water are pumped out and returned to the Hudson River each day through the tunnel loop. "Just think if that 48-incher ever broke," Tubbs mused. "The evening show at the Knick would have to be something in an aquatic format."

Frank Hartman, a senior stationary engineer, makes what is known as the weekly "utility tunnel run."

There are between two and three miles of tunnels under and radiating out from the Plaza. These utility tunnels are about 20 feet high and 30 feet wide, and they circle the perimeter of the Plaza two stories underground. Another tunnel snakes from the Plaza to the state's steam plant on Sheridan Avenue.

A walk through the Plaza tunnels reveals an ominous thoroughfare. Small ponds dimple the floor due to leakage from cracks in sidewalks and roadways two stories above. Steam hisses from pinpoint leaks, muffled by bandage-like wraps.

In years past, the engineers found empty food and drink containers and evidence of homeless people sleeping in the deepest reaches of the tunnels. Officials with OGS have since opened the Plaza Respite for the homeless.

Somebody who haunts the tunnels has a sense of humor. Traced in the thick dust atop the Hudson River water pipe is this: "Elvis '91."