Those twin water towers on the north side of I-270-why are there two, and why are they painted to look like a pair of mismatched socks? And is there any truth to stories about utility tunnels running under Downtown Columbus?

Those twin water towers on the north side of I-270-why are there two, and why are they painted to look like a pair of mismatched socks?

The path from rainfall to water coming out of the tap is pretty complicated.

The Columbus metro population of more than 2 million is served by three water plants and 37 storage tanks containing 76 million ready-to-use gallons. These tanks/towers have evolved over time. Four-legged cylindrical and acorn-shaped tanks were the earliest. Later ones took the shapes of shaft-mounted bulbs, mushrooms and the flattened ovals that look like escapees from the Circleville Pumpkin Show.

Since the late 1960s, the standard has been the "hydro pillar," a low cake-shaped cylinder on a wide, round shaft, like the ones called the "twin towers" on the north leg of the I-270 Outerbelt. Why twins? Partly for capacity, to ensure a fast-growing area has plenty of water. And, when one is down for maintenance, the other is still in use. Stable, non-volatile interior coatings prevent contamination, and draining and cleaning of the tanks is done on a schedule. There's no real standard exterior color scheme. The twin towers are white with light blue stripes, possibly to reflect sunlight and keep the water cool. Another, south of Fifth Avenue just north of Downtown, looks like a vase or planter and is painted gray with, so to speak, "splashy" graphics.

I've heard stories of utility tunnels running under Downtown Columbus. Any truth to this?Utilities yes, but no tunnels. Cities have lots of things underground-gas, water, and sewer lines, data lines, fiber optic cables, electric lines. Some had a "district steam" network with a single large boiler piping steam to heat various buildings; the pipes sometimes were in tunnels, presumably to facilitate repairs.

Columbus never had a district network, but the state of Ohio had some underground steam lines. When the Statehouse was first occupied in the late 1850s, it had steam heating (and also flush toilets, but that's another story). Its boiler was replaced by one at the Ohio Penitentiary at the northeast corner of West Spring Street and Neil Avenue, now the Arena District site. A pipe ran under Civic Center Drive to serve the Ohio Departments building (today the Ohio Supreme Court), with a branch to the Statehouse and also probably to the Wyandotte building (once a state office building) on West Broad Street.

There's a story that the steam line to the Statehouse ran beneath an alley that never had to be plowed because leaking steam kept it clear of snow. However, those steam lines were buried in trenches and not accessible to underground explorers. Rumors for years have told of escaped penitentiary inmates fleeing through a tunnel, but this may have been a sewer to the river.

The Ohio State University campus does have many underground steam tunnels that can be-but shouldn't be-accessed. Entering them is illegal. There's also a short tunnel between the Columbus City Hall and the old Central Police Station-but that's as far as it goes. We'll refrain from inserting an obvious crooked politicians joke here, though feel free to make your own.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to

Sources: "City of Columbus Water Storage Tanks," at; Bob Loversidge, Schooley Caldwell Associates