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.

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 (, which features forums with information, advice and opinions from enthusiasts worldwide.

Underground Ozarks ( 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.)

Documenting his exploits around St. Louis on his blog, Irrational Ecstasy, Casey says he and a few kindred spirits go searching nearly every weekend. "It's something that's got to be in your personality," he explains. "I've been doing stuff like this since I was a kid. It kind of grew from there, until a kid told me about urban exploration — that it was actually a hobby. I got online and typed it in and found Underground Ozarks."

Sam is less attuned to the online community; he's in it purely for the adventure. "I've always been the kid who does the fucked-up shit, who got arrested, skipped school and went places I shouldn't go."

The Irrational Ecstasy contingent is meeting Sam, Rob and Brian for the first time tonight. They've all been traversing the region for the past few years in separate groups, and now they're getting to know each other over beers. Despite the area's vital terrain, St. Louis' underground-exploration scene is much less organized than other cities'.

"Any sense of community here is in its infancy," says Casey. "In talking to these people in other communities, they say: 'We can't believe that there's nothing in St. Louis.' But really, what it takes is a few people that are willing to get it going."

Says Sam: "I kind of assumed that since there were these cave structures underneath the whole fucking city, somebody's got to be checking this shit out. I started running through my mind: 'OK, who do I go talk to if I ever really get into this thing? Water department? City workers? Who do I bribe?'"

When his search for fellow travelers came up empty, Sam started sniffing around the Lemp complex by himself. "I must have been in that place ten or fifteen times before I found out how to get down there. I just kept breaking in. I kept going in different areas until I found out."

Most of the crew follows a stringent code of ethics regarding break-ins. "We've never broken a lock to get into anywhere," stresses Casey. "The difference is, when you bust a lock or break a window, you move from trespassing to breaking-and-entering.

Casey recites the words of Jeff Chapman (a.k.a. Ninjalicious), the late Toronto-based urban explorer who is considered the godfather of the scene: "Take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints."

"We love these sites, and we care about them," adds Casey. "If we were to go to the Lemp and start ransacking everything — immediately all entrances that we use are going to be shut off. We enjoy the return trips."

But Sam, a former brewery worker and self-described "brewer's bitch and cellar rat," says he's not concerned with the leave-undisturbed protocols of the "thrilling, mind-expanding hobby" of urban exploration, as Ninjalicious called it.

"I use this shit to pick up girls," Sam jokes of his numerous forays escorting women into the caves. "I want people to experience the raw fucking beauty of underground St. Louis."

Rob and Brian, meanwhile, are taking the group to a man-made tunnel on the western edge of downtown. At the end of the tunnel is a door that leads into the basement of the main post office on Market Street. "You can see these orange-colored lights," Rob says. "Once, the door was open. You could see in there and you could see them pushing mail stuff around."

After finishing their beers and exchanging phone numbers, the caravan heads out. They time their approach perfectly, waiting for potential witnesses to pass. And then, like a veritable SWAT team, they descend into a gulley and race a few hundred yards through a wide, man-made overpass. They leap across a gutter, scale a chain-link fence and find themselves standing in a pillared cavern where the tunnel opens.

The enormous space seems to be a refuge for a few homeless people. A couple of trashed rooms worthy of Blade Runner are off to the side. The guys search the first one, a dank, unlit area with debris scattered on the floor. As water drips from the ceiling, Casey snaps some photos to upload to his blog.

The next doorway leads to a tiny hallway that flows into another room, where the explorers come across a pool of blue water of indeterminate depth. As they head toward the tunnel, a train approaches, forcing them to retreat into the hallway they just left. They press themselves against the wall and someone warns Sam of the water. But it's too dark, and he walks straight into it, splashing and flailing before he goes completely under. He regains his bearings and crawls out. In the distance, a security guard appears and looks toward the noise. The explorers shush one another. The guard keeps staring, and the group decides to scram. They'll try again later.

"Sometimes," Casey later explains, "you go to places and you have to decide, 'OK, not today.'"

Carved by water a million years ago, the Lemp Cave is one of the sole subterranean remnants of a network used in the mid-1800s to refrigerate beer. Most of the caves were destroyed in the 1960s and '70s, when old, abandoned beerhouses were demolished and their collapsed foundations clogged the entryways.

Vast and forbidding, the Lemp Cave is replete with ruins of a theater, a swimming pool, cold springs and a number of beer-storage caverns. Above it is the Lemp Brewery complex, which in its heyday dwarfed neighboring Anheuser-Busch.

After midnight on a recent Saturday, the dozen-odd buildings that make up the brewery could be the set of a Tim Burton movie: spooky Victorian warehouses and a towering grain elevator that looks like a solid brick six-pack.

Outside, a half-dozen people are getting a debriefing before making a run into the entryway that Sam discovered on one of his excursions. On this night, the group includes Rob and Brian, who've been looking to gain passage for a few years.

After navigating a few obstacles and crawling into a mystery hole, a basement appears, and Sam leads the pack through corridors and hallways, through low-pitched ceilings and down a set of stairs.

A century and a half ago, one of the biggest challenges confronting the rising St. Louis beer industry was keeping the product chilled. The solution, explains Lost Caves of St. Louis: A History of the City's Forgotten Caves co-author Charlotte Rother, was the consistently cool climate of the caves, which remained 57 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Brewmasters and architects scouted the city, looking for such naturally refrigerated basement caves over which to build their breweries.

Rother and her husband, Hubert (who co-authored Lost Caves), used to explore the caves "with a cheap Brownie camera and a few flashlights." Hubert worked for breweries, including Griesedieck, Falstaff and Anheuser-Busch. When the couple began spelunking in the 1960s, many of the neighborhood beer-makers had already closed, so Charlotte searched for old sites by combing through real estate records.

Lost Caves is one of the bibles for St. Louis urban explorers. "When I got that book, I went nuts," says Chris. "I buried my face in it and read it three times over before I put it down."

"There was really quite a system," Charlotte Rother says by telephone from her home in Florida. She describes a lost world that extended from Baden to River Des Peres and included the famed Uhrig's Cave, which housed a theater that later morphed into the Muny Opera. Meandering caves stretched from Jefferson Avenue to Washington Avenue, and on to Union Station and the post office.

"Downtown, across from Union Station, under Market Street and all through that area, I'm sure there are still remnants of caves," she adds. "Many of them also were used during Prohibition, for speakeasies and things. They'd squirrel [beer] away and have some good times down in the caves. One of them was even decorated with Egyptian paintings on the walls and all kinds of neat, exotic stuff."

One architectural survey estimated that more than two dozen breweries sat atop caves. But the biggest system was the Lemp. The south-city pocket ran westward from the river to A-B, beneath the DeMenil Mansion, through the Lemp and along Cherokee Street.

In the 1950s an entrepreneur bought the Lemp complex and dug out 200 feet of clay that separated a few different branches of the system. He constructed a building at Cherokee and Seventh streets, christened his enterprise "Cherokee Cave" and charged admission. The business shut down after a decade.

As the small breweries closed, the entryways beneath them were forgotten. During the Great Depression, other buildings were demolished, and their remains were bulldozed into the caves.

Nearly 2,400 feet of cave still exists beneath the Lemp Brewery, though it's not easy to find, even for a veteran like Sam. On this night, its entry is elusive within the labyrinthine spread of basements and storage vaults. The group wanders for a half-hour. "I've been down here so many times," he says. "You get drunk and then tell people about it. It's a nice little ego boost to tell people about it. But every time I come down here, it's like I've never been here before. You get lost."

Finally, a room gives way to a hall and the sound of trickling water can be heard in the distance. "Your face just feels really good when you get down there," explains Chris.

The atmosphere changes as the hallway opens onto a cavernous passageway, twenty feet wide and twelve feet high. Little tubular stalactites hang from the ceiling. The group has entered bona fide Scooby-Doo territory, and for the next couple of hours, they wander. The caves have been thoroughly scoured, but the limestone walls, hardened pathways and pools of spring water remain unchanged.

"We haven't had major problems with the caves," says Shashi Palamand, who owns the Lemp Brewery complex with his father, Rao, and used to own the Route 66 Brewery in Union Station.

"Clearly, we limit access to them," Palamand adds. "The entrances within the buildings are secured." He concedes, however, that for a certain type of individual the draw may be too great to resist, and all he can do is make sure that the cavers can't get in. "We can't block up every hole in the system," he says, "but it's important to say that the people who do get down there are risking themselves."

Casey and Chris stress restraint when talking about the Lemp, as they don't want it ruined by novices. "I want people to see it, but the right kind of person," says Casey. "We're explorers, not vandals."

Brian and Rob had scoped out the Cass Avenue tunnel for a few months before they figured out a plan. "Before we ever came down here, we saw it from up top, and we figured we'd rappel in," Brian explains. "But we were a little worried once we rappelled in that someone would throw our rope down and that would be that."

The two of them are following train tracks just north of downtown, walking into a huge hole into which you can literally drive a train. The tunnel appears lived-in, with a sofa and chair arranged into a makeshift living room, and a concrete door frame along the eastern wall covered with a blanket. Miscellaneous objects are scattered: a plastic bag filled with miniature dolls, a recipe card, and the Star Trek novel Pawns and Symbols.

A graffiti artist named GUER has tagged in the farthest reaches of the tunnel. "I want to meet that guy," Rob says admiringly. "He tags everything. Anywhere I go, there he is."

Trudging through ankle-deep mud, Rob comes across a small, boarded-up room where a friend of his used to live. "There were a couple pipes that kept it warm year-round," explains Rob. "He came here about ten years later, and his bottles of Thunderbird and his old leather jacket were still here, and his mattress and his titty mags were still here."

Brian points at a strand of unprotected fiber-optic cable about the width of a telephone pole that snakes out of a hole. "We're looking at about 300 gigabits-per-second fiber here," says Brian. A man with a chainsaw could unwire all of downtown and be gone before system administrators knew what hit them.

"Think of the havoc," says Rob.

There aren't any warnings or "Keep Out" signs — this far removed from the surface, they seem unnecessary. But even if a sign was there, says Casey, it's no big deal. "So many people are turned away from the signs that say, 'Authorized Personnel Only.' We just assume that we're not authorized. But who does this authorization?

"Ninjalicious said: 'From here on out, I hereby authorize everyone to go into every doorway they choose to go into. You can tell them that I authorized you.'"

An equally effective strategy, says Casey, is to feign ignorance. "Playing stupid is sometimes your best ally: 'I'm sorry. I thought I was authorized.'"

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