Uncovering myths of the Minneapolis and St. Paul underground

Ever hear the myth about how Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant (namesake of Pig’s Eye Beer) founded the city of St. Paul at Fountain Cave? Or about “Smuggler’s Cave” of Minneapolis, which was supposedly used during the Prohibition to smuggle liquor into the city? Author Greg Brick (Subterranean Twin Cities) has been exploring and writing about the Twin Cities underground for more than 20 years. He discusses these myths, his research, and his early interest in exploring the underground in this post and the slideshow that follows.


My very earliest recollections of a serious interest in the urban underground date back to my student days in London, 1981. I recall being puzzled by the Serpentine, a famous pond in Hyde Park. Water flowed into it, but there was no surface stream draining out. Taking up the challenge, I worked out the path of its subterranean drainage below the city. I later began exploring Minnesota caves in 1988 as a member of the Minnesota Speleological Survey (MSS), a local chapter of the National Speleological Society (NSS). The MSS has been exploring local caves since its founding in 1963. From them I learned the basics of caving, a background that I think would be of benefit to many urban explorers today, many of whom do not seem to be aware of the significant safety risks that face them.

I spent the summer of 1994 doing research at the St. Paul Public Works Department, where I acquired an intimate familiarity with the underground of my native city. My favorite files were the old aperture cards of sewer structures and the “P.H.” file, the initials, written on the documents, standing for “Pigeon Hole,” and this was where I found many historical items of great value, including the earliest complete map of Fountain Cave, dating to 1880. After a while, long-time employees of St. Paul Public Works began asking me where to find various records. I recall how the sewer maintenance workers told me of jobs they had been on, places where they had seen caves in the sewers, and interesting places that I might want to investigate. I carried out similar, though less extensive, research in the Minneapolis Public Works Department. Although the Minneapolis records were organized very differently, one thing I loved was the old engineering sketches. Some of them were real works of art. For example, the North Minneapolis Tunnel, one of the city’s oldest tunnels, was sketched at the scale of one inch to five feet, and the details of geological layers painted in watercolors.

The following presentation is a brief visual summary of Subterranean Twin Cities, which recently won the 2010 Heritage Preservation Commission Award presented by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (PDF). The sequence of images begins with the “baptismal font” of Minnesota caves—Carver’s Cave, in St. Paul, and moves upriver to another natural cave, Fountain Cave, the supposed “womb” of the state’s capital city. The subterranean rivers of the Metro area are shown, followed by a tour of Mushroom Valley, with its mushroom, beer, cheese, and entertainment caves, such as Mystic Caverns, all dug in the St. Peter Sandstone. The Subterranean Venice embraced by the Minneapolis mill district, with Chute’s Cave, and the Nicollet Island caves, follows. The extensive utility labyrinths are shown, and finally the “Pluto’s Kingdom” of deep caves under Minneapolis, Schieks and Channel Rock Cavern.


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