Monday, April 5, 2010


A Canadian winter can be a cruel mistress. Punishing temperatures of minus forty, several feet of snow and drifts to the tops of fences are not unusual. Some claim to actually enjoy the cold weather, other snowbirds leave and go south to Arizona or Florida, some of us had no choice. The winter of '74 was particularly frosty and we had pretty much settled in to our routine of school, hockey and sledding. For the high school kids there were not a lot of places to go for any type of "warm fellowship" where there were not deans, counsellors or staff looking over their shoulders at all times. There was however an underground hiding spot that was warm and very accessible to those with the creativity to recognize its potential.

In 1974 Prairie Bible Institute heated all of its homes, shops, classrooms and administrative buildings by steam. Cast iron radiators would rattle, bang, spit and hiss letting you know that all was well, the heat was flowing and you would be warm during the freezing winter weather. In those days the boiler plant, as it was called, was manned twenty four seven and was fed with mountains and mountains of coal. Out from this central boiler plant spread a system of steam tunnels that made their way to every corner of the campus. Like an octupus's tentacles there were literally miles of these tunnels. Inside the tunnels ran large insulated steam pipes, telephone lines and other mechanical infrastructure as needed by the large campus. In most places if a person would stoop over they could walk inside the tunnel. The insulation was not completely efficient allowing some heat to escape, effectively heating these tunnels.

The tunnels were primarily underneath the sidewalks giving the added benefit of melting the snow. This made less work for the maintenance crew in the winter months. It turned out to be quite a clever idea. In a few areas there were larger "rooms" as the tunnels veered off and headed in other directions. You could start at the boiler plant and go all the way up the hill and come out at several junctures along the way. You could work your way south and magically appear inside the girls dorm. Access to the steam tunnels took on various forms, but the most common were metal man hole covers that were placed in the sidewalk. Most of these were about 24 inches around, but there were some that were approximately 4 feet by 2 feet in size. When you opened one of these covers you were likely to be met with a group of salamanders laying in a pool of muddy water. These prehistoric looking creatures would scurry away as the light would pour into the tunnel. The tunnels were also home to silverfish, spiders and mice, making most of the girls somewhat reluctant to explore with us in this creepy underworld.

As it turns out - there were a few brave ones!

At 9:00 sharp the bell rang signaling another school day beginning at Prairie Elementary School. As we took our seats that morning the classroom was a buzz of talk of a fire the night before. The fire was said to have occurred right behind the school and that there was the evidence right outside to prove it! When the recess bell rang at 10:30, a group of us rushed to get our coats, boots, toques and mittens on and go outside and inspect the scene for ourselves. Sure enough, just to the west of the the two schools, right outside the large man hole cover leading into the steam tunnels, lay a massive heap of charred carnage with huge icicles encrusting the entire mess. What in the world?

This was a most curious sight. Upon closer inspection we could make out several mattresses, winter coats, some blue jeans, parts of a T shirt or two, and a tennis shoe. Along with the clothing items there appeared to be some broken glass and pieces of metal, mixed in with the icy charred remains. Perhaps most shocking to us were the blackened remains of a bra, some briefs and a number of beer bottles. Just the mention of the word bra was enough to send us grade eight boys off chortling and whispering among ourselves. Mix in beer bottles and our imaginations went wild.

PBI owned a small rustic resort on Pine Lake which was about 45 minutes north west of the campus. On about 50 acres of water front were 9 simple cabins where staff and students could go for a weekend of fishing in the spring or a couple weeks of summer holiday. ( Pine Lake will be the subject of another blog. ) Every fall, a crew of men would go up to the lake and bring home all the mattresses, coal oil lamps and other valuables from the cabins. These were put in storage until the spring when they would be needed again. Unkown to the powers that be, some of these items would find a use before the spring.

Several enterprising high school students had discovered this stash of supplies and having some knowledge of the steam tunnel system, put their plan into motion. Breaking into the storage garage late one night, they helped themselves to several of the mattresses and coal oil lamps. Carrying them several hundred yards to this particular entrance to the steam tunnels, they proceeded to set up a homey little love shack.

Now it is not my place to judge what occurred that night, as I was not present to witness this gathering. But I think it would safe to say that there was most likely some "laying on of hands" taking place at a minimum. At some juncture in the activities, someone knocked over one of the coal oil lamps and the whole shootin' shebang went up in flames. With no time to gather their personal effects, the kids were fortunate to have escaped with their lives and the hair on their heads. The fire department was called, the fire doused and all of the blackened remains were hauled up out of the tunnel and placed outside the entrance on the ground. This was the sight that greeted us the next morning when we arrived at school.

It wasn't long until a crew was dispatched and all of the "evidence" removed. Our young minds were left thinking - "What went on in that tunnel that night?". . . and . . . "It must have been a very cold jog for those kids heading back to their various places of abode that frosty winter's eve!"

© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. If those steam tunnel walls could talk...

  3. TOO funny! I'd forgotten about those labyrinth-ine tunnels! I'm guessing a few folks most definitely have not ...

  4. I remember the night of the fire. Did not know the reason behind any of it just that it was a fire in the steam tunnel.We had a fire alarm go off and to stand out side in the cold waiting for the all clear. Thanks for the memory