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.)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.