Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Forbidden Brewery Caves-Moria on the Mississippi

Saint Paul Minnesota has a lot of caves, brewery and otherwise.  It's not surprising, as it is a city built on porous limestone.

Unfortunately as I have previously mentioned, there have been tragedies in these caves. Three teenagers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2004, two others met the same fate in 1992, and there have been a number of other fatalities from falls, drownings and collapses.  Lets face it reckless young people, often intoxicated, need to stay away from places like this.

So the city has been doing some serious engineering in attempts to permanently seal the entrances to caves, and many historic brewery caves now look like this:

Not much left, just a big blob of cement and a tiny corner of the cave still visible upper left. The inside has also been filled with debris and obstacles.  I understand that rolled up chain link fencing mixed with concrete has been especially effective.

For the best of course, but it is always sad when history gets destroyed.

In particular I wish I could have seen the Banholzer caves....

The North Mississippi Brewery was established in 1853 near the intersection of modern day Drake Street and Shepard Road.  It was first run by a fellow named Rowe, then a real hard luck guy named Rausch who went bankrupt after rumors circulated that a worker had fallen into the vats and been scalded to death.

Banholzer took it over in 1871 and made a success of it.  The brewery naturally had ageing caves, roughly a half mile of them laid out in multiple chambers.

The brewery went out of business in 1904, but the caves remained.  They seem to have been much beloved by generations of inquisitive young folks, who came to know them as "Frankenstein's Cave".  Later more boisterous types made Banholzer's the premier "Party Cave" of the Twin Cities.

It is mostly an unwritten history, but you find bits and pieces of it here and there.  Beer being trundled into the caves, fantastic art work done by candle light, police raids where tear gas got launched into one entrance and the open arms of the law awaited at another....

Finding traces of the caves today is not easy.  Oh, the clues are out there to be sure.

It was said that there were several entrances to the complex.  One was up above where the brewery sat.  You could access the cellars from the basement of the brewery and possibly from that of the brew master's house.  There was also an entrance below the hill, in a building now destroyed by enlargement of Shepard Road.  But persisting mention of access from the cliff face beyond the road and overlooking the river proper, got me hunting.

I first looked in all the obvious places, acting on the assumption that an entrance to the cave complex would have a logical purpose.  Meaning a way for wagons to load up kegs for delivery.  Finally after much hunting I found this:

This massive slab of new concrete is well camouflaged overlooking the steep river bank.  It has an almost military look to it, like a hidden fortification.  It is in a location entirely impractical for road access.  Down in the lower left corner is a tiny gap in this modern wall...

Just enough to reach the camera in and snap a few shots.  One day I am going to screw up and drop the darned thing into some inaccessible chasm.

Mysteries out of reach, probably very much out of reach as the tunnel seems to have been sealed with emphasis.

In fact I understand that all of the traditional access points have been closed, and that where ever possible the cave has been pumped full of a sand slurry.

So I will never get to see the most interesting features of Banholzer's cave in person. Here are a couple of images that have turned up.  It is hard to really credit them properly as the people who explore urban spaces like this generally do so illegally and anonymously.  I have some contacts within that, quite literal, "shadowy underworld" but they don't deal in specifics. (Although I will give a link at bottom of page to an "above ground" cave explorer...

An elaborate carving from the caves.  The slightly stoned look makes one think it was a self portrait.

Pegasus, presumably still standing proud and tall, but in perpetual darkness.

But what I would really, really like to see would be the "Tolkien Tunnel".  Supposedly there is an outlined version of the Doors of Durin, you remember them from the Lord of the Rings?

Oh, I suppose it would not be as magical as I imagine it.  But if you love the works of Tolkien and would leap at the chance to explore the Mines of Moria it would be something to stand there in silence and quietly speak the password  "Mellon" that opens ancient doors to a wonderful and terrible place...

Meanwhile, don't go nosing about.  The large entrance I show above was actually the Sycamore Street storm drain.  Not technically part of the original cave complex but the easiest way in as there was a connecting tunnel to the brewery cave.  The other access points (with the possible exception of one inside a halfway house!) are long sealed.  Those who have waded about in raw sewage trying to find connections from other tunnels into the cave have taken risks, broken laws and have not found anything worth coming home smelly.

Let Moria on the Mississippi sleep in peace.

A book on caves and exploring the Twin Cities here


Anonymous said...

After Mr Rousch gave up on the North Mississippi Brewery a fellow named Bensberg was the owner. Bensberg appeared to still hold some ownership when Mr. Renz bought the brewery. Unfortunately the same year (1865-66)he purchased the brewery, it burned and Renz lost his shirt. Hiw do I know this, because Mr. Renz was my Great-grandfather. always open to information from others.

Tacitus2 said...

Interesting. The business of 19th century brewing is not well documented. A very small number of breweries prospered and survived, the rest....vanished.

I have some stuff coming up in a few weeks on a small brewery for which some interesting, and rather juicy, records were preserved.

Any additional tidbits on Renz would be of interest to me as well.


Anonymous said...

we used to go the what people called the party caves in the 80's. near otto ave and shepard road, there was a hole knocked thru concrete where we could enter, and there was a 2nd entrance/exit on the hillside near shepard. I remember one are of the cave was named rat haven, with all these 1 foot diameter holes. wondering if these caves were the banholzer caves

Tacitus2 said...

Sounds like it. All sealed now. Suggest the area be left alone.

Marcella said...

This area is not completely sealed. I have been in there as recently as a month ago and have seen the pegasus and tolkien tunnel you talk of but it's just a small tunnel thru to a larger one with tolkien tunnel carved above