Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration
Phalen Creek Tunnel

The Exploration Part : January of 2003


For four or five years, the Phalen Creek Tunnel remained something that appeared sporadically on lists of potential missions, but which we never seemed to get around to doing. We'd heard tales of the entombed creek, and it sounded pretty cool, for a drain; far bigger than most drains, and an interesting history and tunnel architecture to boot. However, it was still a drain … which no matter what means long, monotonous walks through unchanging stretches of tunnel.

In late 2002, Action Squad went through a long stretch of exploring abandoned buildings (many of which are not yet on the site). Now, I love abandoned buildings. Love 'em. However, they just aren't a substitute for the underground, and I found myself starting to really miss the joys of going subterranean. I am, above all else, a tunnel rat.

In this state of withdrawal, even drains sounded great. Further, the subzero temperatures were perfect for draining … water levels are low, and there is no risk of flash flooding. (Also, drains, unlike abandoned buildings, are always nice and temperately warm in the dead of winter.)

Fortunately, the Phalen Creek Tunnel still had not been explored, so I did not have to resort to exploring a BORING drain just for the sake of being underground.

So one fine winter afternoon, MuppySkum and I set out for a bit of pre-expedition scouting. I had a rough notion of where an entrance might be, but had never actually seen it. We drove over to Saint Paul, stopping briefly to check the entrance to another huge drain we were considering exploring. That entrance was flooded several feet deep in frigid water, so we continued onward toward Phalen.

We had little trouble locating the entrance, so we parked the car nearby and headed right in.

The tunnel we found ourselves in was impressive; at least 16 feet across, and square. The walls were made of massive chunks of raw limestone, and the ceiling was rippled with ancient brick arches. Neither of us was wearing truly waterproof boots, so we carefully stepped and jumped across patches of scummy water, keeping mostly dry on random debris and patches of ice and sand.

The initial tunnel (which had once been part of the Trout Brook tunnel) then joined up with the Phalen Creek Tunnel proper. This thing was just HUGE. Standing in an 18 foot drain, with antique brickwork ceilings and raw stone slab walls, I felt a moment of empathetic sorrow for all the poor explorers who lived in places where the drains were all cement tubes, and the largest only a few feet across.

While I counted my blessings, we followed the tunnel downstream, toward the Mississippi River. Ice formations taller than me adorned the walls, where water seeping in through the limestone walls drizzled in. Not too much further down, the tunnel turned into two parallel concrete tunnels, each about 16 feet square. We took the left one, which had less water running through it.

There were puddles cut off from the flow of water here, and small fish swam in them. A couple had been trapped in puddles that had shrunk down until the little buggers were lying on their sides, unable to escape. MuppySkum, the queen of animal lovers, of course had no choice but to stop and rescue all of them, relocating them to deeper water.

The water got deeper as we approached the river, as runoff was dumped in from pipes in the walls. Many of these featured rusted out, hinged valves that looked exactly like gargoyles!

Now, I'm used to seeing structures that mimic architectural features that surface-dwellers consider attractive, in places that no one is supposed to ever see.

A prime example would be the arch. A staple of soaring architecture such as massive cathedrals, people see them as beautiful; architects even sometimes use them for purely decorative purposes. Yet most people forget, or perhaps never knew, that the reason arches were used in the first place was purely utilitarian; an arch gives the kind of support needed to hold up an enormous cathedral's roof … or, in a less-admired example, to keep hundreds of feet of soil from coming down into a sewer tunnel.

There are many examples of architectural features that people find visually appealing being found in the seemingly most unexpected places. (These same features often turn up in the natural world, as well, but that's another story.)

All that said, the sight of a mock-gargoyle in a drain, spewing water from its "mouth," just like one of the stone beasts atop Notre Dame or something … well, it surprised the heck out of me, and made my day.

My nose, always ultra sensitive, detected the slight tang of a sewer tunnel in the air, long before we discovered a side passage that smelled so strongly that even those with the sniffers of mere mortals could not miss the eau de sewage. Deciding that this apparent sewer interceptor was more interesting than simply following the drain out to the river, we headed down the cement-walled, stench-aired shaft, which was about 6 feet high and 3 feet across.

A short distance into the tunnel, we encountered another really unusual feature; two massive sets of corroded, iron floodgate doors. The near set was open, the further set was closed. The space in between allowed access to an overflow area featuring a vertical shaft featuring a pump and a ladder going upward, as well as several one foot or so pipes up near the ceiling covered with heavy rubber flaps. The place was unlike anything we'd seen; it seemed to serve as some kind of emergency sewage overflow control. (click here for a cruddy map of this feature)

I was in the trough beneath the rubber-flapped sewage pipes when a loud gurgling sound started up, and quickly grew louder. We decided to vacate the area with haste, and were thankful to return to the drains without being treated to a sewage shower.

We moved back upstream, but soon found ourselves in an area where further passage would not be possible without appropriate footwear. It's one thing to walk through deep water sans waders in warm weather: it's a bad idea when outside temperatures are hovering around zero. So, the scouting trip successful, we returned to the surface and drove home. I was eager to return.




That same night, Urban Waste, Slim Jim and I donned our waders and returned to the tunnel to explore in the upstream direction. The rushing water was about ankle deep in the massive shaft. This section was among the oldest sections of the system, with massive limestone block walls almost invisible behind the decades of mineral deposits that tiger-striped them. After a short distance, the beautiful tunnel joined a newer section that had been built in the 30's; the new section was somewhat smaller, and made of concrete.

Aside from its size and somewhat unusual shape, there was not much of interest in the drain for a few more blocks. The monotony was soon broken, however, by some …. thing …. barely visible at the far reaches of our flashlights' beams.

As we drew nearer, we gazed upon one of odder bits of drain architecture that I've ever seen. A large side passage shaped like an oval on its side had been obstructed, but not in any of the familiar ways.

A massive iron plate had been placed across the opening, and held in place by at least 15 steel braces. They were as thick as a man's arm, and braced against the opposite wall, welded to iron beams that had been bolted to the cement of the drain. It looked like something built to keep a dragon out I listened at the plate, but did not hear the distinctive cry of CHUDs on the other side.

At first, it seemed that the contraption might open and close, but closer inspection revealed that it was quite solidly fixed in place. The only moveable parts were two handles which opened and closed valves in the two PVC pipes that penetrated the steel plate. One was open, one was closed.

Through this pipe, as well as around the edges of the plate, steaming water leaked into the drain we were in. The steam from this water reeked of chemicals; it smelled like paint thinner, or some other solvent. The mist rising from the water was unavoidable, so I tried to breathe as little of it as possible.

After thoroughly examining this mysterious feature, we continued on our journey upstream, with the tunnel breeze blowing the solvent fumes along with us.

The next indeterminate period of time was spent walking down the main tunnel, listening to the burbling song of the water accompanied by the percussion section of the synchronized splashing/tromping of our boots. The drain was large enough that "TAS" (Tunnel Ankle Syndrome") was not the problem it often is in smaller drains, where the slope of the floor is much sharper.

We eventually came to an interesting side tunnel: a mysterious mutant hybrid. While it had the concrete, tubular walls of a drain, it had brackets and insulators mounted to the walls, indicating that power lines of some sort had once ran through it. The tunnel was not graded to gravity drain. Some areas were flooded thigh-deep with black, oily-looking water, and other segments of tunnel were so choked with sand that we had to crawl to continue onward. Although the tunnel was clearly not a drain, it nonetheless wound around in and out of both the main Phalen Creek drain as well as the good-sized drain the ran parallel to it. We followed the tunnel all over until our journey was rudely interrupted by a cinderblock wall.

Lacking the ability to walk through solids or punch through cinderblock, we doubled back to the Phalen Creek tunnel, and continued upstream. We soon hit an older section again, where the creek had been enclosed with a limestone-block style similar to the far far downstream end. A PVC pipe about 10" across ran along one side of the tunnel, anchored in cement; we guessed that this carried sewage.

The tunnel was getting progressively mistier, and soon visibility dropped to only a couple feet in front of us. The combination of this impairment and the monotony of the huge tunnel soon began to wear down our wills to continue, especially Urban Waste, who was keen to get back to the surface in time to catch some partying.

After almost a mile of the traditional "OK, we'll turn back in a little bit … let's just go a LITTLE further, since it might be something really cool just ahead," we turned around and headed back downstream, this time taking the drain that runs parallel to that section of the Phalen Creek Tunnel. This shaft had been built section by section out of what seemed to be corrugated metal tubing that had been vulcanized. Yellow stenciled letters near the edge of each section read "Saint Paul," presumably in case explorers became panicked and forgot what city there were currently beneath. The highlight of this drain, for me, was the waving tendrils of tree roots that had wormed their way through thin cracks between drain walls sections to be nourished by the almost-always flowing waters of the drain (Smart trees! Way to adapt to human civilization! You get to pass on your genes!) .

Soon we jumped back over to the Phalen Creek Tunnel and backtracked to the entrance. The mist was VERY thick, making it difficult to navigate and impossible to take photographs. I somehow spotted a flash of gold in the water near my feet, which upon further examination revealed itself to be a tunnel goldfish. I wondered if he was the offspring of a left-for dead ancestor that had been flushed in the days before Saint Paul more fully separated their sewage and drainage systems.

We emerged a few minutes later, slightly dazed by the enormity of the world outside the drain we'd just spent so long in. A cop car cruised by, prompting us to dive and hide in some bushes, but he was only driving through, apparently, and just drove on by without slowing.

Once it was clear, we trudged back to the car, stripped out of our filthy rubber waders, and hopped into the car to head back to Minneapolis for some eatin' and some drinkin.'