Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Suds, a Fugitive and Hidden Treasure

At first I was not sure whether to include this one in the list of "forgotten" brewery caves. It has been preserved for visitors.  Heck, you can read about it on the website of the  Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.  But as you make your way out of downtown St. Paul you quickly realize that this is a site that has indeed been mostly forgotten.  I had to wind my way through a construction area, under a freeway bridge and then down a narrow little lane to get there.  My only fellow visitors were strangely equipped, warm clad folks who wandered around in ones and two carrying little rakes and shovels.  (They were searching for the Winter Carnival Medallion, always hidden in a public area).

Here is the cave.

This cave was used by the North Star Brewery.  The brewery got its start in 1855, oddly enough run at first not by Germans but by a Scotch/English partnership.  The initial establishment was small, only a single natural cave enlarged for ageing purposes, and two 50 by 75 foot buildings.  But the brewery grew quickly with many additions and the customary ownership changes.  It was actually built into the stone face above, with the cave(s) coming right out of the lower levels of the brewery.  By the 1880s it was producing 16,000 barrels of beer annually, and claimed to be the second biggest brewery west of Chicago.  I have read a few snippets here and there that indicate the caves had been expanded into a larger complex.  Also that it was in later years referred to as "Montana Bill's Cave".

In 1900 fire destroyed the brewery, which by now had grown to 300 by 200 feet.  The entire area then then declined into a sort of industrial wasteland.

If you look closely above you will see a smaller cave entrance to the right of the main one. There is a similar one to the left:

The reasons for this "three door" arrangement are not obvious.  The smaller flanking doors seem low enough that it is hard to imagine they were ever used as entrances....unless the grade of the land has been raised a good bit.  And this may be the case, as multilevel caves are not uncommon for the larger brewers.  Taking a peek into the main cave:

There is some serious spring water activity here, almost a foot of clear water in the floor of  the cave.  I visited on a very brisk day, so the misty effect is steam rising up from the surface.  But you can just make out the end of the cave back some 40 feet.  Actually I am pretty sure this represents a later sealing off of the cave.  You don't run a 16,000 barrel a year brewery with a storage area the size of a garage.  The two side entrances by the way appear to connect to the left and right with the main passage.  I was looking through a security gate and can't see around corners, so have no way to tell if they have also been sealed.  One does have to wonder if the water flow was less "back in the day".  It seems inconvenient.

If you look around the outside of the cave you can still make out a few traces of the old brewery buildings.

And about twenty feet to the right of this spot I saw a tell tale plume of steam coming up!

See the frost?  I assume that this is another blocked off entrance to the North Star Brewery cave complex.

Just a little more detective work located this rather well done video from the National Park Service.  You can tell they are trying to be cute here and there, but at the 4:30 mark they do briefly flash a graphic showing the four cave entrances I located, and one other that can no longer be seen.


Addendum:  I thought that the name "Montana Bill's Cave" might relate to this odd story. William Raymond Nesbit was a jewel thief who had a falling out with some of his hoodlum bretheren.  He ended up taking the rather extreme measure of blowing up one of them with 3,500 pounds of dynamite and 7,000 pounds of black powder.  This caused quite a ruckus, breaking windows in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.....five miles away.  Nesbit was captured and convicted in 1937, but escaped from the South Dakota State Penitentiary in 1946.  Four years later he was placed on the FBI "Most Wanted List" and his picture was in the papers.  Local children recognized him as the fellow living in the North Star Brewery cave. And that is where police arrested him.

Did William from South Dakota become Bill from Montana?  Oh, I so wanted it to be so.

But it seems you can find anything on the internet, including the FBI file on the wicked Mr. Nesbit.  It turns out that he had been chatting with the local kids as they played cops and robbers, but called himself "Ray".  When the intrepid junior detectives saw the picture in the paper they thought "Ray" was Nesbit but were not sure.  I really like the part where the kids .."threw snowballs through the hole in the top of the cave to get "RAY" to come out".  With what they felt was a strong resemblance they were able to persuade the police to come and arrest Nesbit.  All very "Hardy Boys", no?

So far as I can tell, Nesbit never used the alias Montana Bill, nor is there any reason for him to be remembered by anything other than his real name or perhaps "Ray".

So, who was Montana Bill?

Anybody got the answer?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I sent you an email, interested in chatting with you.