Notes from the Underground

Urban spelunkers plunge deep to find mysteries waiting to be explored

Believe it or not, the most postcard-worthy view of the Gateway Arch is 50 feet below Jefferson National Expansion Park, down where the freight trains rumble through a four-stories-tall concrete tunnel with gaps wide enough to reveal the monument in all its majesty.

A bit of skullduggery, though, is required to get to it — that, and finding someone who knows the way in. The best time to make the precipitous entry arrives after 1:30 a.m., when the bleary-eyed patrons of Laclede's Landing have departed and the darkness of night provides ample cover.

This is federal property and off-limits to the public, but that doesn't stop Rob and Brian, who've just scaled a 30-foot utility pole by the riverfront that connects to a train trestle, which leads to a tunnel the length of a football field. They make the adrenalin-fueled sprint along the tracks, always on the lookout for park rangers.

"I've got legendary mud on my boots": The Lemp Cave is 
a favorite among urban explorers.
Eric Fogleman
"I've got legendary mud on my boots": The Lemp Cave is a favorite among urban explorers.

Now, deep inside, each flicker of light or faraway whistle is cause for concern. If a train appears, its headlight will illuminate the trespassing explorers.

Rob and Brian have been here before. But until this late-winter night, they hadn't noticed the ladder, moored to a concrete wall, that leads up to an open doorway fifteen feet above the tracks.

Both lifelong St. Louis residents in their mid-twenties, Rob and Brian poke through the nooks and crannies of a secret city — roaming MetroLink tunnels, romping about roach-infested warehouses and footslogging through pigeon dung inside the stone bowels of the Eads Bridge.

"When I was younger, I started getting fascinated with the infrastructure of Rust Belt cities, so I started looking around," Rob explains.

He's not the only one, as the city's legendary caves have long been a magnet for curious adventurers. A vast underground world exists in St. Louis: Manhole covers conceal dry sewers, doorways lead to hidden tunnels, and long-shuttered breweries yield to large caves.

"Every city has a small community that has consolidated themselves into an urban-exploration group," says a blogger named Casey. Springfield, he notes, has the Underground Ozarks crew, Kansas City is home to KC UrbEx, and Minneapolis has spawned the Action Squad.

Rob and Brian proceed to scale the freshly discovered ladder and peek into a snug concrete cubbyhole. As they descend back onto the tracks, Rob sees a distant light and whispers, "That's a train."

Both of them monkey back up the ladder and crawl into the closet-size nook. Crouched and quiet, Brian lights a cigarette, which glows in the darkness. Someone has chalked their name onto the wall, with the date: October 19, 1974.

Rob and Brian are not the first explorers to visit this space, and — despite the best efforts of the authorities — they won't be the last.


The guys drinking beer at the Schlafly Tap Room on a recent Saturday night are intimately familiar with the Lemp Cave system, which winds beneath the Lemp Brewery complex at Arsenal Street and Lemp Avenue in south St. Louis. It is a crown jewel for the area's exploring community.

Even though the caves' entrances are not to be trespassed, Sam says he's gone below at least 30 times. "If I'm out drinking and the subject comes up, [people will] ask me to take them down," he says. "And I usually will. I've got legendary mud on my boots from the crevices of St. Louis."

Like the others, Sam asked that his last name not be used in this story; he fears getting slapped with a criminal-trespass fine of up to $500 — though records show that scant few spelunkers have ever been fined.

On this Saturday night, Casey, Chris and Matt are drinking Scotch ale after returning from their tour of the Lemp Cave. Minneapolis' Action Squad has come to St. Louis to join them. The Squad needed a guide and enlisted local help via the online Urban Exploration Resources (www.uer.ca), which features forums with information, advice and opinions from enthusiasts worldwide.

Underground Ozarks (www.undergroundozarks.com) is Missouri's urban exploration clearinghouse, operated by a man with the handle White Rabbit. His forums feature discussions of Missouri landmarks — the 8th Street Tunnel in Kansas City, River Roads Mall in Bridgeton, the Messiah Project Mill in Springfield — and stunning galleries documenting the decay of the post-industrial Midwest.

One group of photos shows a recent visit to south city's old Falstaff Brewery, which sits above a small cave once used for beer storage. White Rabbit and his team are shown, faces pixelated to prevent identification, roaming the complex. Walking through the rotting brewhouse, they find a cache of Civil Defense survival biscuits and ornate, aqua-green wrought-iron staircases.

Examining further, they uncover piles of old Falstaff stock certificates. The cave is flooded, but White Rabbit dons his rubber waders and sloshes through waist-high water. Holding his digital camera above his head, he shoots haunting pictures of the abandoned tunnel.

Underground Ozarks is one spoke in the wheel of a worldwide fascination with industrial archeology. Urban Exploration Resources provides forums for people searching abandoned shipyards of India, decaying New Zealand hospitals, long-lost Paris catacombs — and Chernobyl. ("That place is RAD," reads one post on an exploration forum.)

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