By Peter Barrett
November 24, 2004
Ever wondered what goes on beneath your feet? Peter Barrett digs up 20 subterranean marvels.
What: junk, archways and treasures
Where: under the State Library of Victoria
Take a wrong turn during a study break and you might find yourself wandering a maze of low archways in the cellars of the State Library, known by staff as “the catacombs”. Strewn among old furniture, building materials and out-of-date office equipment you might stumble on the odd important Melbourne identity taking a holiday here, like John Fawkner or John Batman (rendered in marble).
What: secret tunnels you could drive through
Where: right under the CBD
The largest, and most fiercely guarded, of the city’s tunnels run directly under the CBD. Former State Electricity Commission worker Kevin Cook, 51, recalls walking through a tunnel that led from the old SEC building at 15 William Street to Swan House (now the AXA building) 30 years ago. It was about 90 metres long and apparently more than wide enough for a car to drive through. “It was like going through a Spencer Street subway underpass.” Telstra spokesperson Pat O’Beirne confirms that Telstra uses a network of tunnels but will not provide details because of security concerns.
What: underground explorers
Where: the stormwater drains
Crow (not his real name) is a 36-year-old video-game programmer by day. But in his spare time he can be found (illegally) exploring Melbourne’s extensive system of stormwater drains. Since the early 1990s he has been a member of the Cave Clan, a group of some 100 people who roam the caverns in groups. “You just walk through for kilometres and there’s no advertising, no announcements, no interruptions,” Crow says. “It’s really nice just having the water flow past … and also the mystery of when you pop out of a manhole you don’t know where you are.” Five years ago he emerged, rat-like, from a drain in St Kilda to find two police approaching a fully clothed body on the beach with a white sheet. “I was up to my neck in water and I thought it might look a little suspicious if I came walking out,” he says. “So I stayed back there until things had died down. (Eventually) I found a side drain and got out of there. It was pretty freaky.” According to Melbourne Water, explorers such as Crow are breaking the law and can be fined. More to the point, they risk being drowned. “Water levels in stormwater drains can rise suddenly and without warning,” advises acting managing director Grant Wilson.
What: newspaper message tubes
Where: under the city
Until the 1950s a network of tunnels fanned out from the Chief Telegraph Office, on Little Bourke Street right next door to the GPO, carrying telegrams sent by journalists reporting from around the country to The Age, The Argus and The Herald. According to John Waghorn, 68, a former Post Master General employee, messages were packed into 20 centimetre-long metal cylinders and slotted into the tubes, with air pressure shooting them to their destination. The tubes are still there, but, thanks to the invention of the fax machine and the internet, aren’t quite as essential as they once were.
What: mysterious discovery unearthed
Where: Casselden Place, near Parliament House
An unusual-looking structure baffled many experts when it was unearthed at an archeological dig at Casselden Place, near Parliament House, in 2002. Heritage Victoria had been excavating a government-owned block of land, carefully sifting through interesting bits of 19th-century trash when they hit upon a steel and concrete tunnel. Military history enthusiasts theorised it was part of a bomb-proof underground network built by US General “Dugout Doug” MacArthur. But senior archaeologist Jeremy Smith poured cold water on the claim, dating construction to around the early 1920s. His theory is that it was a vacuum-sealed testing laboratory for communications cables. It has since been removed.
What: the old creek
Where: Elizabeth Street
Elizabeth Street originally followed the course of a creek, which ran from Victoria Street to the Yarra. In 1885 during a boom in construction in Melbourne, town planners decided to direct the creek underground and the Elizabeth Street Main Drain was born. The 1.6-kilometre egg-shaped drain (with the pointy end facing downwards) is built of triple brick.
What: underground shopping strip
Where: Flinders Street
Home to a quirky collection of tiny shops including a newsagent, a singing barber and a store selling handmade books and magazines, this underground passage leads from Flinders Street Station to Degraves Street. It was built in the 1950s to relieve pedestrian congestion from the busy station but the arrival of the City Loop in the early 1980s took away much of its traffic.
What: a museum in the making
Where: Melbourne Cricket Ground
While most of us think of the MCG’s hallowed turf, there’s an astonishingly large cavern beneath it: a car park with 230 spaces, plant equipment, catering storage, cool rooms, a working kitchen, a goods receipt department and match day staff offices.
The current redevelopment, to be completed in 2005, includes an underground indoor cricket centre with six wickets, underground change rooms for cricket and football, and a display area for sports memorabilia.
What: the best-looking car park in town
Where: University of Melbourne
The evocative, forest-like columns of this underground car park have been featured in the original Mad Max film, a ballet performance broadcast on the ABC and a number of university functions. The unusual look is thanks to a sketch by designer Dick van der Molen, 80. The semi-retired structural engineer says the flashy appearance was born out of necessity. A few days before the deadline for the plans Molen was asked to accommodate trees on the South Lawn above and added a last-minute sketch to the bottom of the document. The fluted design of the hollow columns adds strength to hold the weight of the soil and trees above, while allowing roots to grow down and water to drain through. “It was indeed the sort of creative inspiration that you get from time to time,” says van der Molen, who was 50 when he designed the car park. “I’m very pleased with it.”
What: mail tunnel
Where: Spencer Street
This connects Spencer Street railway station’s platform 2 with the former Royal Mail Exchange building opposite, on the corner of Bourke and Spencer streets, and was used to carry the post from country trains. At last report the tunnel was still intact, 4.2 metres wide and 2.4 metres high.
What: underground canals
Where: disused power station, Lonsdale Street
Abandoned and in development limbo, the asbestos-riddled disused power station is popularly believed to be linked to the river and other parts of the city by underground canals. This is partly true. There are two underground tunnels that once provided cool water from the Yarra. The first, a box-shaped, reinforced concrete tunnel, was built in 1915 and runs from the station all the way underneath Spencer Street. The second was built around 1940 when the power station was being expanded. Gordon Duncan, principal engineer with the City of Melbourne, says this tunnel runs underneath King and Little Bourke streets.
What: tunnel for transporting patients
Where: beneath Victoria Parade
Why battle trams, traffic, and pedestrian lights when there’s a perfectly good tunnel around? Patients and medical staff have been travelling with subterranean ease between the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear and St Vincent’s hospitals since 1983. It is mainly used to transport in-patients, as well as to pick up and deliver pathology samples. The tunnel has also featured in a low-budget science fiction film and a music video for the song Falling for You, by the Whitlams.
What: a shopping innovation
Where: Smith Street, Collingwood
Shoppers used to stream through a tunnel joining Smith Street, Fitzroy, and Smith Street, Collingwood. University of Melbourne architectural historian Professor Miles Lewis says the 3.6 metre-wide tunnel was built to encourage shoppers to visit the two Foy and Gibson department stores, which sat across the street from each other.
The tunnel’s future is now in the hands of developers who have proposed a nine-storey retail and residential development on the street that may destroy it.
Professor Lewis says the tunnel has national cultural significance. “It’s a model of retailing that was experimental. It was the first commercial subway in Victoria, long before the Degraves Street under Flinders Street (and) it could have been the way we went.” Professor Lewis says it is still possible to gain entry from the basement of 145 Smith Street, where the Department of Human Services currently resides, but a spokeswoman for the landlord advised that the tunnel has since been “bricked off”.
What: rumoured WWII military arms cache
Where: Merri Creek, Northcote
It’s a sunny afternoon in Northcote but once again solicitor Mark Rawson has decided to spend the best part of the day in a dripping, damp tunnel that he and a band of volunteers have dug into the bank of Merri Creek. Rawson, 48, believes he has found the entrance to a secret network of military tunnel. He and fellow diggers, including a truck driver, a fireman and a retired mining engineer, have been devoted to the cause for almost four years, intrigued by the rather disturbing conviction that at any moment they may find a cache of weapons, unexploded ordnance or toxic chemicals left behind by the Americans at the end of World War II.
Rawson found the site after receiving a tip-off from a former local resident who remembered, as a boy in 1942, seeing guards in front of a green door that appeared to lead directly into the Merri Creek bank. “A door in the bank of Merri Creek?” recounts Rawson. “That all (sounded) a bit weird!
“We came down, had a bit of a dig and sure enough, it wasn’t natural, it just kept going.” Rawson claims the tunnel had been sealed by the American military to prevent entry.
Inside, his excavation is dark and humid. Delicate blooms of spidery fungus sprout on wooden supporting struts above. “When you first come in you sort of get the wobbles up a bit and you think, jeez, this is a bit scary,” he says. “But over time you get used to it and you suddenly think it’s not as bad as it looks. We haven’t had any dramas in here whatsoever. But at the same time we’ve also been pretty careful.” Geoff Glynn, from Darebin City Council, confirms that the council has pitched in about $60,000 and may eventually help to turn the site into a tourist attraction. “It’s a very unusual project,” Glynn admits.
What: private restaurant access
Where: Collins Street
You find yourself running to keep up with pollster Gary Morgan, of Roy Morgan Research, as he sweeps towards his own personal tunnel in the basement of a building on Collins Street. In 1997 Morgan completed the 10-metre tunnel linking his Collins Street offices with his nearby basement restaurant Moylans, in Flinders Lane. It took him two years, working only on weekends so the restaurant could stay open.
What: mini village
Where: Rialto Towers
What used to be Melbourne’s tallest buildings (the Eureka Tower is currently creeping past them) stand on 75 huge concrete legs attached to rock 20 metres below the surface, which leaves plenty of space for a car park, a car wash, shower facilities, a cleaners’ lunch room and kitchen, and a loading dock.
What: City Loop underground railway
Civil engineer Dr John Connell, 91, has had a fair bit to do with the way our city looks. He’s been the structural engineer on major Melbourne projects including the Royal Children’s Hospital, the Arts Centre and the City Loop. But during most of the 1970s, the Loop was John Connell’s underground office and second home. At the time, the project was the most ambitious urban development of its kind because of its tricky location directly beneath a number of heritage buildings in the CBD. But one of the biggest challenges was acoustics. “(Melbourne) wasn’t used to an underground railway,” Connell says. “If you go to New York and stand on Fifth Avenue you’ll hear the railways under you. That’s all right, because they’re used to it. But here there would have been hell to pay.” Connell still gets a buzz visiting Parliament Station. He rode on the very first train through the Loop after 10 long years of underground toil. “I felt elated. After years of work and a lot of mathematics, and testing … to be up front with the driver on the first train, yeah, it was something pretty good.”
What: CityLink traffic tunnels
Where: South Yarra to Richmond
More than 600,000 cubic metres of earth was removed to construct the 3.5-kilometre Burnley and 1.6-kilometre Domain tunnels. The Burnley tunnel is the deeper of the two, reaching 60 metres underground at its lowest point. The tunnels are linked by cross passages at the western end where they run close together before separating to enable maintenance work and emergency access.
What: John Wren’s mythical escape tunnel
Where: Collingwood coffee shop
By some accounts, colourful 1940s Melbourne identity John Wren equipped his illegal SP betting operation in a Collingwood coffee shop with a handy escape tunnel that led directly to a nearby pub, probably The Bendigo. But according to former Collingwood Football Club secretary Gordon Carlyon, 88, who was around at the time, that’s simply not true. “It wasn’t a tunnel, (it was) a passageway into the wood yard. A big, fat bloke couldn’t get through it, there’d be no hope,” he says. (m)
Although men had a place to pee in public as early as 1859 with above-ground urinals, it was nearly 40 years later that the first women’s toilet opened. Early feminists lobbied hard for a place to call their own, finally gaining leverage with the good timing of a Royal Visit in 1901, which brought about the construction of the city’s first underground toilets (for both sexes).
There now are six underground amenities classified by the National Trust in Melbourne. The oldest, on the Russell Street median strip opposite Village Cinemas, dates back to 1902, but has been closed and now serves as a plinth for sculpture. The others are working and spread throughout Queen, Elizabeth, Collins and Flinders streets. Open 9am to 5pm.