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Inside Rochester’s Deep Rock Tunnel Network

April 11th, 2015

Let's explore Rochester's deep rock sewer tunnels! [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
By Mike Governale

A few weeks ago we took you on a trip to Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Facility to see where Rochester’s dirty water goes to get cleaned up. It was there that we learned of an extensive deep rock tunnel system that that captures major storm runoff until it can be treated. Known as the Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program, or CSOAP, this system saves over 1 billion gallons of sewage from overflowing into the Genesee River and Irondequoit Bay each year.

More importantly, this means there are 30 miles of giant smelly tunnels beneath our city just waiting to be explored! Come on let’s go…

Our journey deep inside the bowels of our city begins here, at this unassuming intersection at East Ridge Road in Irondequoit. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Our journey deep inside the bowels of our city begins here, at this unassuming intersection at East Ridge Road in Irondequoit. The only indication that anything is even here is this sign for the Culver-Goodman Control Structure. But don’t show up uninvited. Bill Putt from Monroe County Pure Waters is letting me tag along on a tunnel inspection today. Jealous?

After making my way down a long gated driveway, I finally arrive. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
After making my way down a long gated driveway, I finally arrive.

And here she is; the Culver-Goodman Control Structure. I know what you're thinking. It just looks like a hole in the ground. And you'd be right.  [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And here she is; the Culver-Goodman Control Structure. I know what you’re thinking. It just looks like a hole in the ground. And you’d be right.

At the top of the photo is Interstate 590. That V-shaped thing is the control structure. At the pointy end of the V is the Culver-Goodman deep rock tunnel opening. And at the wide end of the V is a 50 foot high dam. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Here’s a better look at it from the air external link. At the top of the photo is Interstate 590. That V-shaped thing is the control structure. At the pointy end of the V is the Culver-Goodman deep rock tunnel opening. And at the wide end of the V is a 50 foot high dam. I’ll explain more about that in a minute. Let’s go in for a closer look.

The only way to get down inside is to be lowered in by crane. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The only way to get down inside is to be lowered in by crane. Oh heck yes… that’s TWO things crossed off my bucket list – in one day.

The view from here is spectacular. Say hi to the boys from Pure Waters. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The view from here is spectacular. Say hi to the boys from Pure Waters.

Almost there. Touch down in T minus 3, 2, 1...  [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Almost there. Touch down in T minus 3, 2, 1…

Ok, here we are on the surface of Mars. R2-D2 and his family have come to greet us. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Ok, here we are on the surface of Mars. R2-D2 and his family have come to greet us.

Just kidding. We're still on Earth. But trust me, you're still going to want your moon boots for this. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Just kidding. We’re still on Earth. But trust me, you’re still going to want your moon boots for this.

This is one of just a few access points from where the tunnels can be inspected like this. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
As I mentioned, there are some 30 miles of these tunnels fanning out beneath Rochester. This is one of just a few access points from where the tunnels can be inspected like this.

Construction of the tunnel system took 9 years, from 1982 to 1991. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Construction of the tunnel system took 9 years, from 1982 to 1991. Documents on the Monroe County web site explain, “Laser-guided tunnel boring machines, called moles, chewed tunnels anywhere from 10 to 16 feet in diameter—at an underground depth of between 85 and 200 feet. The $2.5 Million moles were enormous pieces of equipment. They measured about 400 feet from cutter head to the end of its trailing equipment, where the smashed rock was loaded into rail cars. Approximately thirteen workers tended each mole.”

The photo above shows the head of a mole (and its teeth) emerging from a tunnel.

These tunnels are so wide you can literally drive a truck through them. And that's exactly what we're doing today. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
These tunnels are so wide you can literally drive a truck through them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.

Mount up. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Mount up.

As the driver gives it the gas, we're jostled around a bit, and off we go. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
As the driver gives it the gas, we’re jostled around a bit, and off we go.

There ain't no turning back now. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
There ain’t no turning back now.

Almost immediately the change in air temperature is striking – it feels like a good 15ºF drop in the first few minutes. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Almost immediately the change in air temperature is striking – it feels like a good 15ºF drop in the first few minutes.

About a half mile in, Bill checks his air quality monitor. All looks clear today. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
About a half mile in, Bill looks down to check a device hanging from the truck’s rollbar. “What’s that?” I shout. “I’m just checking the air quality down here,” he yells back. “We shouldn’t have any problem today.”

That’s good, I think to myself.

Of course, if it weren't for the headlights it'd be pitch dark, but I'm pretty amazed at how clean it looks in here. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Of course, if it weren’t for the headlights it’d be pitch dark, but I’m pretty amazed at how clean it looks in here.

We had a pretty good rain the night before, so there is still a little stream of water running through the tunnel. Other than that, the space almost seems livable.

Bill tells me that during major rain events, the tunnels can actually fill all the way up. Suddenly I'm feeling a little anxious. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
But Bill tells me that during major rain events, the tunnels can actually fill all the way up. Suddenly I’m feeling a little anxious. Checking the weather forecast before venturing in here would be smart.

After about 5 or 6 minutes we've travelled 1.5 miles in and we come to a fork in the road. Goodman St tunnel on the right; Culver Rd tunnel on the left. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
After about 5 or 6 minutes we’ve travelled 1.5 miles in and we come to a fork in the road. If we continue straight we’ll head down the Goodman Street branch of the tunnel. Veering left would send us toward Culver Road.

This is actually our stop. We're going to walk from here. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
But this is actually our stop. We’re going to walk from here.

As we hop out of our Mercedes and start to stretch our legs, Bill spots something with his flash light... [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
As we hop out of our Mercedes and start to stretch our legs, Bill spots something with his flash light…

Aww! It's a little brown bat. Cutie! I put him in my pocket and keep him as my pet. I shall name him, Jimmy. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Aww! It’s a little brown bat. Cutie! I put him in my pocket and keep him as my pet. I shall name him, Jimmy.

Taking a look around, it's really quite amazing how much space is down here. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Taking a look around, it’s really quite amazing how much space is down here.

Judging by the sign, I'd say we're about 80 feet beneath Lyceum Street. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Judging by the sign, I’d say we’re about 80 feet beneath Lyceum Street external link. And now here’s where things get interesting.

We're going to make our way down one of the little off-shoots from the main tunnel. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We’re going to make our way down one of the little off-shoots from the main tunnel.

Hmm, things are not quite as spacious as they were in the main tunnel. In fact, this corridor is definitely getting smaller as we continue to walk. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Hmm, things are not quite as spacious as they were in the main tunnel. In fact, this corridor is definitely getting smaller as we continue to walk.

It's strange, but I feel like a somewhat dirty version of Alice in Wonderland. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It’s strange, but I feel like a somewhat dirty version of Alice in Wonderland.

Finally I see something up ahead. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Finally I see something up ahead.

The space opens up into a huge concrete chamber—like entering through the big arched doorway of a cathedral—and suddenly I'm having a religious experience. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The space opens up into a huge concrete chamber—like entering through the big arched doorway of a cathedral—and suddenly I’m having a religious experience.

The walls rise up and angle in toward the center like some ancient Pagan temple. And I'm in awe. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The walls rise up and angle in toward the center like some ancient Pagan temple. And I’m in awe.

We're standing at the very bottom of a 50' drop shaft below Lyceum Street. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
We’re standing at the very bottom of a 50′ drop shaft below Lyceum Street.

At the center are two 6' wide openings in the ceiling. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
At the center are two 6′ wide openings in the ceiling.

Overflow from the surface sewer system travels down this side. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Overflow from the surface sewer system travels down this side. Baffles along the inside of the shaft are designed to slow the flow and keep it from making a big loud splash as it hits the floor.

The other side acts as a vent, regulating air pressure in the pipe to facilitate the flow. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
The other side acts as a vent, regulating air pressure in the pipe to facilitate the flow.

A sudden downpour right now would really make my day.  [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
It’s crazy to think there are close to fifty of these chambers beneath the streets of Rochester and I never had a clue. A sudden downpour right now would really make my day.

Here are a couple of diagrams to help give you some context…

This diagram shows the 1.5 mile length of our trip (highlighted in pink). [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This first one shows you the 1.5 mile length of our trip (highlighted in pink). From the Culver-Goodman Control Structure we made our way southwest to drop shaft #9. The purple lines are the tunnels; the purple dots are the chambers.

Here's the full network. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Here’s the full network.

This is a cross-section of the entire deep rock tunnel system. The area circled in pink represents the section we covered. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This is a cross-section of the entire deep rock tunnel system. The area circled in pink represents the section we covered.

Here is a cut away view of drop shafts under Lyceum Street where our photos were taken. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
And here is a cut away view of drop shafts under Lyceum Street where our photos were taken.

So now let's turn around and follow the flow back out, toward the Culver-Goodman Control Structure where we started. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
So now let’s turn around and follow the flow back out, toward the Culver-Goodman Control Structure where we started.

Remember the 50 foot dam? That's what keeps all of the flow from the Culver and Goodman tunnels from spilling out into Irondequoit Bay. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
Remember the 50 foot dam? That’s what keeps all of the flow from the Culver and Goodman tunnels from spilling out into Irondequoit Bay.

This giant basin can hold 45 Million gallons of sewage. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
This giant basin can hold 45 Million gallons of sewage.

That metal control gate down there leads directly to the Van Lare treatment plant. The gate can release the flow a little bit at a time so as not to overrun the plant. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
That metal control gate down there leads directly to the Van Lare treatment plant. The gate can release the flow a little bit at a time so as not to overrun the plant.

But even this massive control system isn't always enough to hold back the tide. Every so often the flow does spill over this 50' dam. [PHOTO: RochesterSubway.com]
But even this massive control system isn’t always enough to hold back the tide. Every so often the flow does spill over this 50′ dam. The chain link fence on the other side of the dam acts as a screen, keeping large debris from washing into the creek and bay behind it. I’m told on at least one occasion even the fence was wiped out by rushing water.

One tunnel, 45 MILLION gallons of water rushing beneath your feet. Think about that next time it rains.

Anyway, that’s pretty much it. I’ll leave you with some dull video (above) from our ride through the tunnel. To give you some idea for how wide these tunnels are, at one point in the video the truck does a 3-point turn.

• • •

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This entry was posted on Saturday, April 11th, 2015 at 11:14 am and is filed under Rochester Images, Transit + Infrastructure, Urban Exploration. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Inside Rochester’s Deep Rock Tunnel Network”

  1. Matt says:

    This is strangely fascinating. Thank you for documenting the experience.

  2. Ruth Nederlk says:

    Is there any tunneling going on from the bay into Webster.NY ?

  3. Jim Mayer says:

    Way cool! Question: are there separate pipes for sewage and storm water runoff that merge at some point before treatment, or are all types of sewage carried in the same pipes from the start?

  4. Ruth, the map doesn’t show any of these deep rock tunnels in Webster. I’ll try to obtain a better view of the tunnel map and post it here.

  5. Krysta says:

    Thank you so much for narrating this and taking pictures and video! So interesting! I don’t ever want to go there but thank you! =)

  6. You’re welcome Krysta! That’s why I went in your place 😉

  7. Hey Jim, (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong), but the way I understand it is that storm runoff and sewage start off separate near the street, but in older cities like Rochester they both drop down into a combined system. You can see a photo of the combined tunnel in my previous post on Van Lare. This is why sometimes storm water can overrun the system causing it to overflow. So now we have this deep rock system, yet another layer which catches the overflow. Pretty crazy.

  8. Ruth Nederlk says:

    Thank you Many of us are not aware of what is going on right under us. The thought occurred when I read about this and in recent years we have had more and more sewers put in in Webster So the thought was , are there any connection to these tunnels.?

  9. Gary says:

    Mike, Thanks so much. I’ve always wondered. I assume the huge pipes under the Seneca-Maplewood footbridge are part of this. In the floor of the old Subway tunnel, near Nick Tahoe’s, are manholes where flowing water can be heard, seemingly deep down. Are those portals into the stormwater system?

  10. Ruth, I think the town of Webster has its own wastewater treatment plant. Your sewer lines would run to there. Otherwise the pipes would have to run over the Bay Bridge to the Van Lare facility, which they don’t.

  11. Gary, yes! The pipes that run under the Maplewood-Seneca foot bridge carry all of the wastewater from the west side to Van Lare treatment facility. In fact, that bridge was constructed specifically for this. The pedestrian deck was added to the project.

  12. Michael Krauklis says:

    Fascinating article! Keep up the great work!!

  13. Ray says:

    I worked in the tunnels for about 9 years. Some times I didn’t see much daylight till the weekends. I remember being down there when they were blasting. Very interesting work. The main tunnel was 25′ diameter finished concrete. I remember one there was a fire some place in the tunnel & we had to sit on the floor ( invert) because the upper part had thick smoke.

  14. Marty Strenczewilk says:

    How does this tie in with the tunnel system the built in the 1960’s? I remember the big shaft that was dug on Norton St. near Goodman when I was in grammar school. Back then they used dynamite and blasted out the rock.

  15. Marty, if it’s a combined sewer tunnel you’re thinking of (which I think it is) then that tunnel would collect and carry rain water runoff and sewage together. The CSOAP tunnels run below that, collecting any overflow during major rain events at specially designed “interceptor” points along the sewer tunnel. I don’t have any photos of that. But you can Google it.

  16. Hector says:

    Most of the streets in the city have a single, combined sewer pipe. Sewage (from houses) and storm runoff (from street drain inlets aka “DI” or “catch basin”) both go into the same pipe at street level. Newer streets will have separate sanitary and storm pipes. In the city, both types of surface systems dump into the same trunk sewers. Before we built CSOAP, rainstorms would cause the system to overflow, dumping raw sewage into the lake and Irondequoit bay. Gross!
    Newer suburban developments typically have a separate storm system that drains into a detention pond.

  17. Rich says:

    If the mole dug the big tunnels how did they dig the narrow ones that branched off?

  18. Marty Strenczewilk says:

    I remember looking down the shaft when it was near completion (I guess they didn’t have the safety regulations we have today allowing a 10 year old near the shaft). One of the workers pointed out a small tunnel about 20-30 feet down with the top half open. He said the open top was to allow for storm overflow to the larger tunnel about 100 feet below.

  19. Jason Haremza says:

    Amazing! So cool that you got to go down there.

    From what I’ve heard, Rochester and Milwaukee were the only two cities in the country to take advantage of Federal money for water pollution mitigation in the 1970s and 1980s. They built these deep tunnel systems as “holding tanks” for sewage. Other cities like New York and Buffalo are still dealing with combined sewer overflow events where raw sewage gets discharged directly after heavy rains.

  20. Monroe County Pure Water has a brief pdf describing the process of the design and construction of the system.

    http://www2.monroecounty.gov/files/DES/pw-History.pdf

  21. Clem Chung says:

    Rochester often gets derided for missed opportunities to reinvent the way we do things, so CSOAP is a great example of some of the forward thinking that did happen. I’ve worked in cities where they are only now getting their arms around how to address CSO pollution (guess what: the solution to pollution really isn’t dilution), and they are coming to Rochester to learn how we did it decades ago. Not only that, but at the time, *75%* of the money came from the feds, and *12.5%* came from the state, meaning we only had to pay *12.5%* for this massive project that works (and launched a few careers of some prominent civil engineers in the area). Other communities like DC and Atlanta are grappling with having to saddle billions of dollars of debt on their ratepayers and residents.

    The one knock on having addressed this problem early is that we missed out on the current movement towards greener infrastructure initiatives, to reduce the amount of stormwater that ever makes it to our sewers. This is the approach that Philadelphia is taking, and while it makes for less impressive engineering projects, it makes sense in the long run to protect our environment.

  22. carl binger says:

    This is awesome Mike!I am jellous. Glad u had fun.

  23. kitty says:

    I really enjoyed this, thanks! Don’t know if this question can be answered here. Nearly 20 years ago, while at Hamlin beach, I was standing on a bunch of rocks the were built out in to the water, I think over a pipe. Strewn about there was a collection of plastic objects that I presume were flushed & found their way in to the sewage system. Does this indicate that sewage made it’s way in to the lake?

  24. Ruth Nederlk says:

    Thank you. I wondered because at one time they had been talking about a system gong along Lake Rd and perhaps would be at the end of Culver Rd. Is it possible for people who live in the area to feel a vibration from this work being done so far down?

  25. Chris McFiggins says:

    Fantastic work. Thank you very much for showing us this.

  26. Kevin Kelley says:

    A fascinating read! Thanks for doing this. I recommend reading the Monroe County Pure Waters history (Christopher Brandt posted a link in the comments above).

  27. Neal says:

    Interesting story. My dad was a union carpenter and talked about the concrete work they did down there and the miserable conditions they worked in. I remember him talking about being lowered in daily by crane just as you were at the same spot. He also mentioned the same temperature change, cold and damp of working in the tunnels. Its nice to see his work still stands. I like to bore my kids with the ‘Look, your Grandfather built that’ story as we go by. I knew it was big but never realized how extensive until now. Thanks

  28. Lori Hartel says:

    Thanks for sharing. My great grandfather died, along with another gentleman, in the sewer tunnel cave-in on October 1, 1894 while digging the Goodman Street/State Hospital Sewer Tunnel. His son, my Great Uncle, witnessed the cave-in as he was one of the helpers on a plank bridge above the tunnel. It was quite an event as it was reported in various newspapers around the country and was written about in an 1895 Engineers Digest. I am wondering if there may be a Rochester City Archive or other organization that may have more information on the event. Thanks in advance for any leads that may lead to more information to help my genealogy research.

  29. Joe P. says:

    Nice overflow system.. I worked as a construction inspector on the Jay-Arnett drill and blast tunnel section. Mt. Read to the drop shaft accross from burger king on Lylel ave.. 1982-83-84 including the drop shafts along the way. also some parts of the saxon line and Lincoln drop shaft.
    This was quite a heavy duty operation with many laborers local involved. many of the top supervisors and foreman were experienced in tunnel construction and came from many locations in the US.
    I recall there were numerous tunneling records set for TBM mined rock face on the 25′ dia. tunnel.
    just thing of the billions of gallons of sewarge and contaminated surface run off taken out of lake Ontario by this project.


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