An exploration of downtown Montreal's underground

The yellow lines indicate steam connections. Dark orange shapes are the buildings connected to the CCUM network. The blue "M" indicates the location of the network's mechanical room. The green square with "CCUM" is the steam-producing plant. The red and blue lines, both dotted and full, are hot water and gas connections we assume are not humanly passable.

After exploring the steam tunnels of the downtown McGill campus during the summer of 2003, UEM was left craving for more... more... and more! Luckily, a bit of Googling was all it took for our resident wiz kid Mokonax to unearth CCUM's website, along with its bounty of very interesting diagrams and informational tidbits. It was at that moment that we first caught a glimpse of a great steam tunnel network, courtesy of the map above.

From that moment on, we were determined to find a way in - there was no chance in urban exploring hell that we'd let something this big and inviting slip away from our grasp. And to make a long story short, we did, but only after a good deal of work, a myriad dead ends, and as per usual a bit of the UEM luck.

CCUM stands for "Climatisation et Chauffage Urbains de Montréal" - in English, "Montreal Urban Climate Management and Heating". Its tunnels, which span over eight city blocks of Montreal's downtown core, make for a rather pleasant and effortless exploration once you're inside: the all-pervading dust and the possible presence of asbestos fibers in the air are the only real hazards one needs to keep in mind. The conditions range from comfortable to mildly hot; the vast majority of the tunnels are brightly lit with fluorescent lights; there are no narrow passages one needs to squeeze through, no back-breaking sections, no motion detectors to worry about, and as far as we can tell, no human presence - at least at the times we visited. We did see evidence that CCUM employees visit the control room, but with what frequency, we know not.

We also had known for some time that a steam tunnel runs underneath the O'Keefe Brewery on its way to the ETS vocational school. Our map confirmed that it belonged to CCUM's network, but sadly, we were never able to find a way inside. And it's not because we didn't try, trust me.

For ease of presentation, we separated the tunnels we explored into four parts: north, west, east, and south, all directions being relative to the central mechanical and control room (which has its own separate photo gallery). Moreover, the tunnels' galleries all begin from the mech room, so as to disguise precisely how we got into the network. As you can tell from the map, the first three tunnels are relatively short compared to the south branch, which makes up over 75% of the network.

The east tunnel is the shortest of the group and is quite uneventful - save for its role as a home to one of the two cats that inhabit the steam tunnel network. We did not waste much of our time exploring this tunnel, and so we won't waste yours either.

Despite what the map says, the west tunnel is slightly longer than the east one, and for novelty's sake it branches off after about twenty meters. One branch leads to the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hotel; the other leads to the Montreal headquarters of Canadian National. Dark, narrow, and hotter than average, the west tunnel gave us a couple of scares... and a nice sweat.

The north tunnel is a longer, more interesting version of west. It also branches out and reaches the bowels of both the Sun Life building and Place Ville-Marie, the downtown skyscraper with the spinning spotlights. Sadly, our northwards progress was brutally stopped by the Gate of Doom, which allows none to pass, save those initiated in its malevolent ways. (No room to squeeze ourselves between the pipes on the side either.)

The south tunnel is definitely where it's at. To the neophyte, it feels as if it will just go on forever; faced with its numerous offshoots and turns, one can become quickly confused, and even lose one's bearings. The trip from the control room to the CCUM plant itself might take you about twenty minutes... at a very brisk walk. When going at our careful, stealthy pace, that trip can take darn close to an entire hour.

But that's just the beginning. The real kicker is that the the later half of the south tunnel does not run underground, like the rest of the network, but inside the structure of a raised rail bridge! We made this discovery after infering our position from a couple of landmarks peeked at through dirty windows from inside the tunnel. (In hindsight, the regular ground-shaking rumbling coming from overhead was a pretty big hint, but we're not a bright bunch.)

So there you have it... Feel free to begin your visit of the Montreal CCUM steam tunnels by clicking on the links in the left window. We also have a handful of videos showcasing the tunnels in all their glory. Enjoy this section, and keep on exploring!

(Note: For the best viewing experience, we suggest you jack up your monitor's brightness and contrast before viewing the pictures. Flash photography in a steam tunnel featuring tons of windows and vents is not the best of ideas.)