Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Trucking Underground

By Alan Burkhart

The other day I picked up a load of powdered milk in Longview, TX bound for Wampum, PA. Wampum is a little town northwest of Pittsburgh. I was not aware that the place in Wampum (Gateway Commerce Center) is an underground facility. I turned onto their private road and headed into the woods, and suddenly found myself staring at a tunnel entrance. How cool is that?!

Actually, it was very cool. A uniform 55 degrees year-round. A bit damp for my taste, but otherwise quite pleasant. It had been at least 10 years since my last visit to an underground facility. My previous trip below ground was in the well-known (to truckers, at least) tunnel system in Kansas City, MO.

Gateway Commerce Center is an old limestone mine converted to commercial use. Mining operations here began in the late 1800's and ended sometime in the 1940's. The 2.5 million square foot mine has been used for storage since that time.

Those unfamiliar with the trucking industry probably wouldn't think of sending an 18-wheeler into an old mine. The practice is fairly common however, in areas where limestone mining is widespread. I've visited such facilities (truckers just call them caves) in both Kansas City, MO and Carthage, MO (near Joplin).

As you might imagine, getting around inside a cave whilst dragging a 53-foot trailer requires a bit of extra caution. As you can see from the questionable quality of my cell phone photos, the lighting isn't exactly top notch. Making turns within the cave is challenging at best. The pillars are generally wider at the top than at the bottom. Because of this, it's possible to be watching the trailer during a tight turn and believing that you've got plenty room - and then gashing the top of the trailer against a pillar. We can't see the top couple of feet of the trailer in the mirror. If I have any doubts, I set the brakes and walk back to take a look. My boss is a good guy, but I don't want to have to explain how I destroyed one of his expensive trailers.

I've always admired how the builders of these places manage to build a warehouse and docks right into the stone. Lots of hard work, both physical and mental. Inside, the place looks like any other warehouse except for the occasional stone pillar growing out of the floor. Air conditioning is of course unnecessary. It's chilly underground, even in the heat of summer. Standing outside the entrance you can feel a cool breeze emanating from the depths.

I've been in a few of these places in which one must jack-knife the trailer into a dock. Gateway's planners placed the docks across from other
tunnels so that drivers can nose into the tunnel and then back straight to the door. For this I'm grateful. Getting around the corner into the adjoining tunnel is still tight, but it's a lot easier than backing around a pillar to a dock you can't see. My only complaint was that the adjoining tunnel wasn't lighted. The darkness was so complete my high beams barely penetrated it. The tunnel walls and ceiling are painted white to help the florescent lights chase away the shadows. In the above photo, I'm standing in a well-lit tunnel - with the docks directly behind me. Note how the light just stops a few feet inside the "get straight" tunnel.

Here's a parting shot. Note the difference in the light as I approach the exit. After spending an hour in Mother Earth's cool and comfortable innards, I was loathe to return to the summer heat. All of my windows and mirrors fogged when I pulled outside ( 55 degrees underground and 90 degrees outside). I had to stop and wipe everything off to see where I was going. OK, the laptop's battery is getting low and I gotta get to work.

Best to all
Alan :-)