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By Village Voice Writers
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It is a mysterious tale that has tantalized St. Louisians for more than a half-century. It involves mushrooms, beer, spelunkers, star-crossed lovers, hot-air balloons, a giant tree and, possibly, runaway slaves. It is the story of English Cave.
English Cave is the second-largest of the network of caves that spreads out beneath St. Louis like a giant honeycomb, said to be between 25 and 35 feet wide and 350 feet long. Most of it lies 60 feet beneath what is now Benton Park, but a few tunnels trail off into the surrounding neighborhood. (Rumors that the cave is causing Benton Park to sink remain unfounded.)
In the 1960s, members of the Hondo Grotto, a now-defunct chapter of the Missouri Speleological Society, used surveying equipment to create a map. But no one has claimed to have ever made it into the cave, for the very simple reason that, by all official accounts, the passageway in has been lost.
"There's no known entrance," says Joe, a member of the Meramec Valley Grotto, a local caving club. He has written two books on St. Louis' underground caves, but owing to the clandestine nature of urban cave exploration, he prefers to be known only by his first name. "Nobody's been in there since 1910 or 1915. There's a core group that does a lot of looking around. If they haven't found an entrance, there probably isn't one."
Nonetheless, St. Louis' amateur historians and urban explorers refuse to give up. There is a way to get inside English Cave, they insist, but it's hidden or on private property. The cave wasn't always sealed off from the world. According to local legend, it is haunted by the spirits of a Native-American woman and her lover, who hid in the cave to avoid their tribe's war chief who wanted to marry the woman himself. This curse provided a convenient excuse for nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who tried and failed to establish a business there.
The cave is named after Ezra English, a St. Louis brewer, who used it to store and refrigerate his beer. In the 1840s, he opened an underground beer garden where his guests could drink, bowl and explore the cave, and upon returning to the surface, ascend in a hot-air balloon.
Todd Brandt, president of the Benton Park Neighborhood Association, has spent several years studying the cave's history and its layout. In English's day, he says, "you would go down 70 steps to the first chamber. Then you'd go through two double doors into the big chamber, ten feet below the first. There was a spring down there, and stalagmites and stalactites that made columns." English's descendents still have keys to the doors.
The English brewery and beer garden withered away in the wake of the 1849 cholera epidemic, when the city established a cemetery in adjacent Benton Park. In the 1880s and 1890s, a mushroom farm and a winery set up shop in the cave, but they, too, failed. Sometime in the early 1900s, the city sealed up the cave.
"I don't know why they shut it down," says Joe Walsh, a member of the Missouri Speleological Survey. "I guess it failed it commercially and the city converted it into a park, which wasn't a risk." Walsh theorizes that the cave might have also become polluted, having been used as a sewer.
Meanwhile, Joe the one who declines to use his last name thinks the advent of refrigeration rendered the caves useless for storage. "Caves are a lot of work," he says. "You have to bring in ice to maintain the temperature and haul beer around."
Over the years, people forgot how to find their way into English Cave, though stories still linger that there's a cave entrance beneath the bridge in Benton Park. Last winter, when the city drained the park's pond to repair its concrete lining, a few urban explorers tried get in through a sinkhole. But the hole was too small for them to make much headway.
It's more likely the cave's opening is outside the park. Brandt claims he has found it by examining old maps and real estate records, but declines to say where it is because it's on private property. More discouraging for cave-hunters is that somebody planted a tree over the entrance, which Brandt estimates is 50 years old and fifteen feet in diameter. "Unless the property becomes available and you dig up the tree, you're not going to find the entrance," he says, "and the owners aren't selling anytime soon."
Other scholars have drawn different conclusions. Some, including a few posters on the forums of Underground Ozarks, a Web site devoted to cave exploration, believe the entrance lies beneath the Faith Paradise Temple of the Apostolic Faith on Wyoming Street. The unassuming red-brick building was once owned by the winery, which used the cave for storage. But the map that guided these urban cavers to the church is old and does not show new construction, which may have covered up the cave's entrance.
Another theory is that the secret opening was actually underground. Mark Sarich, a Benton Park resident and amateur historian, says that tunnels once connected English Cave to the Lemp and Cherokee Caves in a network that extended more than three miles to the old Federal Reserve Bank downtown. These same tunnels may also have connected English Cave to a cottage on Lemp Avenue that Sarich believes was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
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.
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."