Secret Passage

Local cavers scout the entrance of long-lost English Cave in Benton Park.

Documented evidence for the connection between English Cave and the Underground is scanty, Sarich admits. "Who the hell would write down their illegal activity?" he asks rhetorically. "The only people we know who ran the Underground Railroad were the ones who got caught."

Still, Sarich points out, the neighborhood was inhabited by German immigrants, who were known abolitionists. And the cave system, if it were intact, would have led directly to the Mississippi River, where the slaves could cross into Illinois. An archeological dig at the Lemp Avenue site by Gateway Technical High School students several years ago uncovered African artifacts.

If there was a link between English and Lemp or Cherokee Caves, Sarich says, it would have been obliterated by a tunnel collapse near the turn of the twentieth century when the city tried to expand its sewer system.

Dan Zettwoch

Today English Cave remains the holy grail for St. Louis' urban cave explorers. Even their patron saints, Hubert and Charlotte Rother, authors of cavers' Bible The Lost Caves of St. Louis, couldn't find their way in during their exploration in the 1960s.

A few urban explorers have gone so far as to knock on the doors of houses near Benton Park and ask the owners if they have tunnels in their basements, but their efforts have yielded nothing. "People don't know what's in their basement," says Casey, a blogger on Underground Ozarks, "and they don't want us scouting around."

But not everyone is willing to get inside the cave. "I wouldn't want to go in there if I had the chance," says Walsh. "It's full of sewage and bad air. There are some formations, but they're old and not pretty. They were vandalized by people before it was closed off." Still, he understands English Cave's allure. "It's a wonderful feeling to go where no one has ever been before. You don't have many chances to do that on this planet."

Others are ready to take the plunge. "I'd dig it right open," says Joe, "if you gave me a million dollars and a backhoe."

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