Under the circumstances, I was more than a little leery of the mysterious freight elevator shaft we'd found in the remains of a building off of the Wabasha Bridge Room tunnels. I'm not afraid of heights. I don't particularly like them, though, either.

When Action Squad found an intact underground elevator shaft from a demolished building, I knew that sooner or later I'd almost certainly be getting a chance to find out exactly how much heights really did or didn't bother me.

The location we'd discovered was the former subbasement of a former building. When the R.E. Cobb Company Building had been torn down, a pocket of the building's underground structure had somehow remained uncollapsed beneath the rubble. This pocket consists of a good sized-basement room filled with about 5 feet of smashed bricks, rotten boards, and other demolition debris, and an intact, slanted brick hallway leading from the room down to the top of a 60-foot abandoned freight elevator shaft.

This shot, taken around 1920, shows the now demolished Cobb Building.
There is a park on the site today.

Danarchy, who originally found the shaft with me, got vertigo whenever he went within 5 feet of the edge. There was nothing to hold onto if you wanted to lean out to look down, and anyone with even the most rudimentary of imaginations could not help but envision how easily a tiny accident could send someone hurdling to their death far below.

Now, sixty feet might not sound like much to you. To be honest, prior to my experience getting into the Cobb Caves, I'd always underestimated just how far down 50 feet or so is.

Believe me; sixty feet is a lot when you're trying to descend that distance down a smooth-walled concrete shaft far too wide to chimney down, with sharp rocks and broken bricks littering the bottom, and which would be almost impossible to get an injured or dead person out of. It is highly intimidating, and I'd like to think we're not an easily intimidated group of people. That's roughly a 5-story drop. People simply are not designed to survive five story falls.

After not looking down the shaft for awhile, it is easy to forget just how frightening a drop it consists of. Your confidence builds, and you can't remember what the heck was so bad about it. A quick look down again with a light powerful enough to illuminate the bottom is a quick cure for this arrogance.

Hmm. I got ahead of myself a bit there. Allow me step back for a minute and give some quick background. By the time we had found this unique underground feature, we were wrapping up our exploration of the Saint Paul Utility Tunnel Labyrinth.

Finally, it seemed that we would be able to say "well, I think we've seen everything down here" without discovering a whole new tunnel system the next time we went. (This had happened several times, and was becoming a running gag.)

So, the elevator shaft represented the last major unknown in the Labyrinth. Action Squad had explored, mapped, and pretty much owned the entire rest of the system; the question of where this mysterious freight elevator shaft might lead was an irritatingly and insanely intriguing issue.

Intensifying our desire to find a way down the shaft was the intel we had gathered which indicated that there had once been a system of storage caves in the general vicinity, known as the Cobb Caves. By our reckoning, these caves would have to be just about where this elevator shaft was. Had it been used to get goods into and out of the caves at one point? If not, could we find or make a connection to the caves from wherever the shaft did lead us?

Keep in mind that at the time, we did not know what building's remains we had found: we didn't even know that there had once been a building called the Cobb Building. All we knew was that there were supposed to have once been some caves in the area known as the Cobb Caves. At best, the elevator shaft would lead to this mysterious cave system; at worst, it would be a dead end at the bottom (a distinct possibility, as we could see that the bottom was piled with rubble). Perhaps it lead only to a single tunnel leading out to the base of the bluff. We had no idea but there was no way in hell we were going to not find out one way or another.


How? We're not trained in rope climbing techniques, and the shaft had no hand or footholds, and was far too wide to chimney.


Our first serious effort was in the form of a Slim Jim special: a shitty nylon rope and PVC pipe rope ladder. We'd used them in the past to get into all kinds of places but never more than 20 feet or so. We hauled the massive rolled up 60 foot ladder in two parts, through several tunnel systems, and got it assembled over the course of a couple of hours. I took one look down the shaft, and said, "no way." But Slim Jim was determined not to be turned away from our planned descent.

He tied his flimsy-looking creation to a pipe about 10 or 15 feet from the shaft, around a few rough brick corners, and tossed it over the side. It appeared to be a few feet from the ground. It also appeared insanely suicidal to think about going down it.

The way Slim Jim designs his ladders, the rope is bent at 90 degree angles against the sharp edge of each PVC pipe rung, and the ropes would give a real climber fits simple knots made of all acute angles. Just looking at the flimsy thing twisting down the shaft out of sight into the darkness was enough to make a sane man shudder.

Knowing how the breaking point of a rope is reached much more quickly when the rope is subjected to the stresses of tight angled bends, and that the longer a rope is, the more easily it will snap (think of how easy it is to break 4 feet of string, versus 2 inches of string), I was uncharacteristically discouraging. I was not eager to have to change the part in the "general info" part of the website, where I mention that "so far, none of us has died." Getting the police in to get his corpse out would be a real pain in the ass, too. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I suppose I'd be sad if Crazy Slim Jim Hollison bought the farm. Heh.

Danarchy and Morning Star were not very into the plan, either, and it Jim's effort at making us feel better didn't help us much. Totally serious, he said, "If I do die, don't feel like it's your fault or anything. It's totally my decision." Then he more or less told us to tell his parents not to blame us if he wound up at the bottom of the shaft with a broken neck and a broken rope ladder in his dead hands.

I insisted on tying a rope we'd found in the tunnel to a rusty ringbolt in the floor and clipped the other end to the back of Jim's belt, as a back-up in case the ladder broke on the first 20 feet of the downward trip.


However, the clip was corroded and stiff, making it unlikely he'd be able to safely disengage himself when he hit the end of the pathetic back up rope.

Now, I wanted to get down that shaft as badly as anyone did. In fact, I was absolutely confident that we would do so. But some vestigial modicum of good sense told me that it should not be tonight, and that we shouldn't use the deathtrap rope ladder. Fortunately, Slim Jim lost a good deal of his suicidal resolve when he actually put some weight on the first rung of the ladder. Sensing my opportunity, I struck. "Jim," I said, hefting a rock the size of a large watermelon, "this could be you."

I swung the stone out over the edge of the shaft and released it.



The crash echoed satisfyingly, and from the look on Slim Jim's face, I knew I'd made my point. Vowing to return and conquer the shaft, we packed up the rope ladder and took the long, convoluted route back to the surface.



Cobbs Cave Part Two >