Splash of the Cave Man

A spelunker finds direction in the dark recesses of a flooded mine

Hardly anything stirs the silence deep within the Crystal City sand mine, a 6-million-square-foot cavern carved into a Mississippi River bluff about 30 miles south of St. Louis.

Click here for a slideshow of the Crystal City Underground kayak tour.

For more than a century workers toiled inside the mine's massive caverns, excavating silica and sand for the nearby Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory. But the last of the PPG laborers packed up their drills and dynamite in the 1980s. Gone, too, is the power to pump out the encroaching waters of an aquifer located somewhere even deeper in the earth. Today much of the mine lies drowned beneath a still and glasslike lake that spans some 150 acres.

Into this eerie stillness enters Don Marsan, a gruff and seasoned spelunker who has made it his mission to explore by kayak the dark vastness of this aquatic underworld and share it with others.

"Ain't this fuckin' place amazing?" Marsan asks (for what feels like the hundredth time) while giving a recent tour to some fellow kayakers. A military veteran and former firefighter, the 66-year-old Marsan gives off the impression of a rough but kindly handyman while his New England accent makes him sound remarkably like West Wing-era Martin Sheen.

Sparsely shaven and sporting a light gray jacket, waders and boots, Marsan plies his way through the vertigo-inducing darkness with no map. For a long while, the splish-splosh of the kayak paddles is the only sound inside vacuumlike blackness. Marsan keeps his headlamp switched off as much as possible, preferring instead to use the lamps attached to the bottom of his kayak and the powerful beam of a 275-lumen, handheld spotlight. About 30 feet underwater, these lights reveal submerged tire tracks, dislodged pipelines and unidentifiable machinery.

"All right, we're going to stop here," Marsan tells the group after paddling nearly two hours. The lights from the stopped kayaks throw green wave patterns onto the cavern walls like some kind of underground aurora borealis. Gently, Marsan slides his paddle inside his kayak.

"This is the squeeze tube," he says, introducing this area at the eastern edge of the flooded mine. "The next column is where we're going really low, and you're going to have to remove your headlamp."

Here, only two feet of air separates the water surface from the ceiling. It feels as though the cave is flattening itself, crushing reality into a thin, breathable sliver.

"To lay down in the boat, all you do is slide down like this." Marsan places both hands on either side of his kayak and scoots his legs forward until he's fully horizontal. He waves a hand about a foot above his face. "The ceiling is going to be right here. This is where you're going to have to tilt your head sideways."

There's no room to use a paddle in the squeeze tube, and Marsan shouts a few tips about hand placement on the ceiling as he guides his kayak through the remaining air.

As he vanishes beneath the ceiling, his voice calls out from somewhere in the void.

"Now right here are the titties," laughs the voice in describing two handholds where a kayaker can just slide through. Using his cackling as guidance, the fellow kayakers place their hands on the ceiling and push their boats along until the mine's roof again rises. Minutes later, the kayakers are in a large passageway with a 30-foot ceiling.

For a year and a half now, Marsan has been leading kayak tours in this old mine, exploring its strange nooks and forgotten secrets with his own brand of tour-guide exuberance. By his count, he has taken more than 1,200 people out on the water. And while the mine's eccentric owner has converted parts of the cave to other uses — sand volleyball courts, Frisbee golf links, a nightclub — the lake is Marsan's refuge and a proving ground for both himself and others.

At the end of this day's tour, after numerous turns and pit stops, Marsan wraps up the way he usually does. He picks out a participant.

"OK," Marsan tells him. "Take us home."

It's a daunting proposition, almost cruel. Without a sense of bearings, the powerful lanterns are barely useful. Each passing corridor appears to stretch infinitely into a common darkness.

"I'm following you," Marsan says simply, letting his kayak drift behind the group. "Lead the way."

No one just accidentally stumbles into the old Crystal City mine. They either seek it out or — in the case of Marsan and the mine's owner, Tom Kerr — it draws them in.

About a half hour south of St. Louis along Highway 67 is Crystal City, a small town of 4,100 whose name hearkens back to its days as a company town for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Industries. (A few minutes drive north is another vestige of the area's mining legacy — Herculaneum and its notoriously pollutant lead smelter that shuttered in 2013.)

Driving through Crystal City reveals sleepy streets lined with pickup trucks and frame houses. An easy-to-miss road, more like an alley, winds behind houses with swing sets, leading to the far south end of town. There, a sign greets visitors: "Crystal City Underground."

Hemmed on both sides by fenced-off lots choked with brambles and trees, the road bends right, revealing a bridge with wooden slats that creak ominously beneath car tires. Across Plattin Creek the bridge deposits drivers at the mouth of a tunnel cut through a tree-dotted hill. Several hundred feet later, there it is, right across the parking lot: the opening to PPG's old sand mine.

In 2005, Kerr, a St. Louis entrepreneur and volleyball fanatic, spotted an ad for the mine in the Wall Street Journal. Two years later he bought the mine for $850,000. He'd spend that much and more installing lights in the cave and removing scrap from the mine to make it safe for the public.

"Well, I'm a nutcase. Honestly," explains Kerr between sips from a Budweiser. Seated on a recent day in a lounge area of the mine not far from the entrance, Kerr is dressed in his everyday outfit of Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap. Today he's wearing a throwback Rams jacket to combat the cave's 55-degree temperature.

"My passion was and is volleyball," continues Kerr. "I am a senior athlete. I am an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs always love to look for ways to follow their passion. My initial plan [for the mine] was to create an Olympic-quality tournament venue for all sports."

Kerr's ambition hasn't taken off as he had hoped. He says political opposition scuttled his plans for a new road to the mine, a result of what he believes is simmering resentment for his role in speaking out against a proposed iron smelter on the grounds of the adjacent PPG glass factory.

Today, entering the mine will take you past arcade machines — a sniper game, fighter-jet simulator and bucket-seat car racer — a huge projection TV screen and a stocked bar where neon beer signs hang from a scarred sandstone wall. Kerr's other attempts to utilize the mine include laser tag, paintball and marathons.

For a time, the mine also played host to concerts and raves, but in April 2014 a concertgoer fatally overdosed on amphetamine, and two more were hospitalized in October after a Halloween-themed electronic dance party that featured twenty arrests. A pending court dispute with Crystal City over permits and zoning has further clouded the cave's future as a venue.

The lake, meanwhile, remains a reliable attraction, at least while Kerr continues to chase his pie-in-the-sky subterranean athletes' utopia. A booze-friendly barge runs brief tours for those uninterested in Marsan's hours-long kayak adventures.

"I understood how cool it was, how wonderful it was, and I wanted to share it," Kerr says of the lake. Joined by Marsan, the two men swap stories of artifacts they've found in water's depths — whiskey bottles hidden away by thirsty miners, mule shoes and cracked clay spheres used to clear out the slurry pipes that carried the sand to the factories.

Kerr made his maiden voyage on the lake in a pontoon boat with a cooler of beer and a buddy at the helm. A survey map of the mine, dated 1980, provided little navigation assistance, and Kerr recalls how a steel cable nearly took his head off not long after his buddy crashed the boat into the ceiling of the squeeze tube.

"It was the most incredible boat ride I ever took in my life. But I'll tell you what," Kerr adds, smirking, "if you took a guy back there and spun him in circles, he'd be done."

The first time Don Marsan paddled out to explore the mine, he told his wife, Teddy, that he'd be back in four hours. He was gone for nine.

At the time, Marsan was already an experienced caver with thousands of hours logged traversing natural caves, guiding newbie spelunkers and training search and rescue teams. But he'd never before kayaked an underground lake, let alone a mine.

Still, he simply paddled his way into the darkness one morning in September 2012. His supplies consisted of a life jacket and flashlight. No food, no water. Marsan keeps a copy of the map he drew two months after that first expedition and uses it to trace his meandering first journey.

"When I first started checking this place out, Tom said, 'Just stay to the walls, and you won't have a problem.'"

Marsan emits a bemused cackle.

"Well, that's not true, and I found, after about two hours on the water, that everything looked the same."

Even more confounding, there are parts of the mine that are utterly different. The support pillars that miners carved out of stone decades ago, and by which Marsan eventually learned to mark distances, can vary greatly in size. Some are little more than 20 feet in diameter, while others are more than 50 feet. Certain areas of the mine have pillars carved out in laser-precise fashion in a ten-by-ten grid. Older sections feature asymmetrical beams with irregular outcroppings that seem to exist for no other reason than to block otherwise orderly aisles.

After nine hours out on the lake that first day, Marsan finally managed to find his bearings by counting pillars and spotting a few conspicuously soot-stained walls. He paddled blind through the squeeze tube, not knowing what lay on the other side.

"This is his M.O.," his wife says. "He takes adventures to the nth degree. I didn't get really concerned about him until he was gone for eight hours."

Marsan and Teddy both come from military backgrounds. He joined the army in 1967, and she and Marsan met and fell in love in the early '80s while both were stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When he left the military in 1989, the couple moved to Teddy's home state of Missouri.

"In the military, you had camaraderie, you knew to depend on each other," Marsan says, attempting to trace the strange path that brought him to the caving-and-kayaking business. "In civilian life you only depend on yourself, because nobody is out there to help you. That's what we learned from the get-go."

By 1995 the stress of civilian life had reached a tipping point. Marsan bounced between warehouse jobs, driving freight and doing occasional mechanic work around Jefferson County. At the same time, the couple says, their marriage began falling apart.

"We were getting ready to divorce after fifteen years," he says. "We just didn't have anything in common."

Thankfully, a work friend of Marsan's suggested they attend a meeting of a regional caving group, Meramec Valley Grotto, that holds monthly meetings at the Alpine Shop in Kirkwood. Marsan took an immediate liking to the exploration and sense of community that reminded him of his military days.

Teddy, on the other hand, had to overcome a clawing fear of tight spaces and water. She pushed herself to keep up with her husband.

"I'm very claustrophobic," she says of her first cave trips. "They'd take me to the entrance of the cave, I'd get in three feet, come out, vomit and then have to pick up a shovel and bury it."

As for Marsan, he never had a problem with strange environments. Indeed, listening to his life stories is like hearing a tall tale come to life: A sixth-grade dropout, he spent summers hopping trains between Boston and New Hampshire before joining the army at eighteen and shipping off for multiple tours in post-war Korea. After leaving the military he volunteered as a firefighter. Now, in his golden years, he leads tour expeditions into a watery cave.

"Every time I go in, there's always something new in here," he says. Marsan regularly searches for the exact spot where the groundwater poured in decades ago to create the lake and scours for new passages and left-behind machinery.

"There are a few places I can't find again, a few pumps," Marsan says, mentioning how he spotted a trunklike pipe, maybe a foot (or more) in diameter and ten feet long. He doesn't know what it was used for, but that's not really the point.

Later, back out on the water, Marsan's kayak casts a twelve-foot halo as it glides toward a wall. He halts the boat with a prod from his paddle and points his lantern into the crystal-green water.

"Look down on the wall," he says.

It takes a minute for the water to calm and the ripples to flatten. Below the water's surface someone long ago wrote in red paint, "What the hell am I doing here?"

Marsan grins, his expression lit by the ethereal interplay between water and light, stillness and shadow, present and past.

"Ain't this place awesome?" he says again.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.