A trip into the depths of Las Vegas

Taking a visit into the storm drainage tunnels underneath Sin City reveals a community of vagabonds and artists. Photos: Las Vegas tunnels

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
LAS VEGAS--I'm standing underneath Caesar's Palace, and boy is it dark.

What I'm actually doing is walking through a storm drainage tunnel that stretches from just south of a nondescript parking lot here, under Interstate 15, under Caesar's and then the Las Vegas Strip, and then ends at the garage of the Imperial Palace.

And these tunnels, let me tell you: They're a mess, and yet they're unbelievably fascinating.

At this moment, I'm in the care of Matt O'Brien, the 36-year-old news editor of the Las Vegas CityLife, who has just published Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, a chronicle and examination of the tunnels that most people, let alone Sin City residents, don't know exist.

O'Brien has generously offered to give me a tour of the section of the tunnel that snakes under Caesar's, since here I'm in town at the beginning of my Road Trip around the Southwest. But nothing he told me ahead of time has helped me keep my feet dry.

And even O'Brien, a longtime veteran of these tunnels, worries about his footwear.

Las Vegas tunnels

"I don't like to mess up my shoes," he says after switching into a pair of beat-up old boots. "A couple of times, I've worn my Chuck Taylors and they got (messed) up, and I can't have that."

O'Brien, a former scholarship college basketball player from Georgia, first discovered the tunnels after a famous murder case in town in which the suspect, Timmy "T.J." Weber, avoided a police dragnet by wandering through the drainage system. The local newspaper had mentioned this element in a single paragraph, and O'Brien's interest was piqued.

So, being an editor and not having a lot of time to investigate, he assigned Josh Ellis, a freelance writer, to do a story on the tunnels. Ellis took a quick trip there, and then said he required rides to return, and didn't have his own car. So, O'Brien began driving Ellis to the tunnels and the two began regular visits down below.

"I'm a writer," O'Brien says, "and I thought there was a story. That's what got me down here."

Soon, they had produced a two-part series on the tunnels, and on the community of homeless people and graffiti artists who frequented them. Ellis moved on, and O'Brien began working on his book. It was published in June.

Now, he and I, and a friend of his, are wandering through the tunnels in the middle of a scorching Vegas July day, and you'd never know it was 110 degrees or more outside. In here, it's dark and cool--and wet.

That's not saying anything about how wet it can get in these tunnels if it rains. After all, these are the storm drainage tunnels that were built around 1977 as a way to control runoff from the local wash. Prior to that, O'Brien tells me, there are famous stories of cars washing up in culverts around town. With Vegas starting to expand, it was decided that the city needed a subtler way to deal with the results of storms.

Road Trip 2007 promo

So, here it is 2007, and there are currently 450 miles of these flood channels in town, including 300 miles underground. O'Brien says that the Las Vegas master plan created in the 1990s calls for around 1,000 miles of them within 20 or 25 years.

Most of the time, the tunnels are relatively dry, largely because it doesn't rain much in Vegas. But when it does, O'Brien says, the water level in the tunnels can rise rapidly, quickly turning into a flash flood. It's not where you'd want to be if such a thing were to happen.

That's why on a pillar deep underground, someone has helpfully spray painted, "In case of flood swim for your f---ing life."

In fact, spray painting--the graffiti kind--is a major element in the tunnels. Everywhere you look there is some kind of graffiti, much of it meaningless and uninteresting. But in some places, it turns into art.

Indeed, one of O'Brien's favorite places in the tunnel that he took me to is called "the art gallery," he says, and it's easy to see why. Everywhere you look, the walls are covered with colorful, artistic tagging, one beautiful image on top of another. On one wall, a lovely figure of a woman is sporting an orange halo. Elsewhere, the tags have more and more flair.

But don't expect to see what I saw--the taggers will likely cover it with new stuff any moment.

"Local taggers and even artists from across the country and the world come here," O'Brien says, "to leave their art."

Nearby, we see a marriage proposal spray painted on the wall. It reads, "Holly, will you marry me? Check yes or no."

It's not clear which box is checked, and sadly, my camera chose that moment to malfunction.

Meanwhile, what really interests O'Brien are the homeless people who live in the tunnels. O'Brien estimates that 300 people are living in small encampments throughout the tunnel system, and in the course of his research, he got to know many of them.

We didn't have the opportunity to visit any of them during my tour, but evidence was everywhere: here, an old set of pans; there, large heaps of garbage, including many old mattresses.

One might expect that it is dangerous in the tunnels, but I never felt that way. Perhaps that's because I was being led around by someone who has a lot of experience there.

O'Brien says he still gets jitters going into the tunnels, but it's nothing compared to when he and Ellis first began visiting.

"We just couldn't imagine what might be going on in these dark, deep places," he remembers. "But we were erring on the side of caution, so we brought knives and golf clubs and hard hats (for protection)."

He says, however, that he's only ever had a few minor confrontations with people in the tunnels, and nothing serious enough to require swinging the expandable baton he still brings with him.

"In retrospect, it was a bit of overkill, but we just didn't know what to expect."

If they had encountered problems, they would likely have been on their own. That's because, O'Brien explains, the local police pretty much ignore the tunnels, preferring not to have to venture in there themselves.

The same is true of the local politicians, as well as the casinos.

"When I would call the casinos," O'Brien says, for comments about the tunnels running under their properties, I wouldn't "get return calls. They don't want people to know that you can access the casinos that way."

It's true, too. At the end of the tunnel, we emerge in bright light coming from the garage of the Imperial Palace. O'Brien says he usually doesn't venture far in that direction because doing so triggers motion sensors, which brings security guards he doesn't want to deal with. But it's interesting to see how we were able to simply walk into this place.

Finally, we return to the tunnel entrance we started at. My shoes are soaked through, but we are safe, and I'm not sure I've ever been happier to come out from a cool climate into the blast furnace of a July day in Las Vegas. But the blue sky and civilization seem attractive right about now.

In the end, it's been a fascinating tour. O'Brien says there are many other tunnels he could have taken me to, but he usually takes friends and others to this one because of what it goes under, and what that inspired in his writing.

"It's where the most interesting stuff is," he says. "If you're walking underneath Caesar's Palace, it's going to spark some (social) commentary."