Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration

 Cambridge State Hospital
 Abandoned Buildings &
Steam Tunnel System


We went to the Cambridge Mental Institute without any idea of its history. Had we known more of it at the time, the trip probably would have been a lot cooler, but oh well. On 10/25/01 (a little more than a year after we were there) the Star Tribune provided us with some info about the Cambridge State Hospital. Here are the passages describing the hospital when it was still in use:

"The squad car sped into Isanti County. It was headed to a place just as forbidding, a destination often spoken of in tones of horror - Cambridge State Hospital. Imposing, overcrowded brick buildings held thousands of mentally retarded men, women, and children. This was a place where cribs were turned into cages and people were forced into restraints or seclusion or tranquilized so heavily they wandered in stupors."

In 1972, a Richard Welsch sued the state of MN over the treatment his daughter was receiving at the "herd care" oriented Cambridge State Hospital. This was the lawsuit which set in motion the closing of all Minnesota's state-run hospitals for the mentally retarded. By 1990, the state had decided to close all its mental institutions before the year 2000.

This, of course, led to the closing of the nightmarish Cambridge Mental Hospital, which in turn led to Action Squad's being able to explore the buildings that the insane had been caged in, as well as the network of tunnels that ran beneath the entire complex.

Trip #1
Tuesday, October 17th, 2000
Members: Max Action and the Texas Kidd


1924 map of the
Cambridge Mental Institution


     I was at a party after the Fear concert when I first heard about the Cambridge mental institute.  ‘Texas,’ who I had met at the show, had heard about them from a friend who had lived out that way but had always been too afraid (of mentally ill ghosts?) to do more than stare from a distance.

Apparently, a mental institute out that way had been abandoned for years, and was rumored to have tunnels beneath it that went all over beneath the entire city.  While it
seemed pretty obvious that the “all over the city” part was almost certainly false, it still sounded like a good thing to check out.

It was past 2 am, we weren’t geared up (in fact, I was wearing some very silly, very impractical tight black leather pants at the time), and Cambridge was over an hour away.  But there was no way we were going to wuss out, so by about 3:30 AM we were geared up and on the road to Cambridge, Minnesota.

We found the place without too much difficulty: it was a large complex of institutional buildings just off of what passes for a major road in the small town of Cambridge.  We quickly realized that most of these structures, sadly, we still being used for various purposes.  However, about 5 or 6 of the structures were vacant, and we quickly homed in on them.

The first building we approached was amazingly easy to gain entry to; the front door was unlocked.  Inside, the two-story building was in a state of medium disrepair.  Peeling paint and disintegrated plaster were everywhere and piles of trash were in the corners, but the exterior windows were all intact, the roof was intact, and the floors were solid.  There was no graffiti or beer bottles, indicating that this was not a location often explored by local kids. 

The stairwells featured fences that went all the way to the ceiling, to prevent the inmates from leaping to their deaths through the space in the center of the stairwell, which went all the way down into the basement.  In one room, someone had spent a lot of time tearing everything that was remotely paper-like into tiny, uneven squares, which littered the floor and countertops.

The vacant hospital was a pretty spooky place, especially with only two people.  In the basement, past what seemed to be some kind of bird shrine, we found a set of heavy metal double doors that seemed almost certain to lead into the tunnel system - but they were sturdily locked from the other side (by a castle-gate style bar & brackets, we later discovered).

The tunnels were a priority, so we decided to try to access them through one of the other buildings, and went back into the night outside - where t he faint sound of the nearby Rum River kept doing a great impression of human voices and freaking us out. We quickly discovered that we had lucked out when we got into the first building we saw through the first opening we'd tried, however.  Every other door on every other abandoned structure in the asylum campus was locked up tightly.

In frustration, we attempted to open up one of the vents on the sides of the bench-like structures that were scattered all over the area.  These odd structures, with their glass blocks and vents, clearly served to supply the tunnels we knew were beneath us with fresh air and natural light.  However, without appropriate tools, we were doomed to fail.

We made another round of the abandoned buildings, this time trying to open the windows, and scaling the walls where possible to try to enter from upper levels. Nothing seemed to be working. But just as we were almost ready to give up - in the eastern sky, the glow of dawn was creeping in - we finally found an unlocked window on the ground floor of one building, and jumped through it, down into the basement.  A quick search revealed another set of the metal double doors; these were unlocked.  We opened them up with a grating squeal, and  ... yes!  We’d made it into the tunnels beneath an abandoned mental institution.

They were steam and utility tunnels, as predicted, running about 5 feet beneath the surface.  We explored them just enough to determine that the tunnel system, like the complex of former asylum buildings above, was only partially disused; much of it remained well-lit and clean.  Since the sun was about to rise - and with it, the staff of the active buildings - we decided to take off, and return to explore the tunnels later.

It was a long drive home, but there was no doubt that the trip had been worth it - and that a return trip would be, as well.


Trip #2
Friday, October 20th, 2000
Members: Max Action, Texas Kidd, & Urban Waste

     We returned a few days later to finish exploring the tunnels - this time, with three people.  I'd been sure to close up the window we'd used as an entrance previously, so no one would discover the breach and lock it up - so it was still unlocked when we returned. We retraced our route through the basement of the abandoned building to the tunnel system.

The asylum's tunnels were square, with white concrete walls and lots of steam lines - all pitch black except for small segments which were lit oddly by the moonlight filtering down through the glass blocks built into the "benches" scattered around the campus above. My favorite feature down there - other than the unique glass block skylights - had to be the crazy hand-painted signage indicating which building each side branch led to - they employed a font that a mortal man can see in only two places - underground beneath an old insane asylum, or on reruns of Headbanger's Ball.

The tunnels were pretty cool , but I am sad to say that we did come away a tiny bit disappointed.  All the doors out of the shallow tunnel system were locked, other than the two abandoned buildings we’d already been in and one active building - which we snuck about inside of until forced to retreat back into the tunnels by approaching footsteps. We were thwarted from accessing the power plant by a well-secured metal grate barricade, which was too bad, since if there really was any chance of tunnels that went out into Cambridge, that's where I would have looked for them.

Once we had run out of tunnel branches to explore, we headed back to the car, carefully closing the window for a possible return trip - a trip which never did happen.

In 2003 and 2004, the abandoned asylum buildings and tunnels that we'd had so much fun exploring were demolished by the city of Cambridge, to make room for new housing and businesses.

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