Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration


Prelude: Mel's Hole and beyond

First, some background. One fine morning, I was out eating some breakfast with Slim Jim and Mel at the Copper Dome in Saint Paul. We'd been out adventuring the previous evening, and were discussing potential future Action Squad missions. In the course of this discussion, Mel mentioned a "hole" she remembered. When she'd been younger, she said, she recalled there being a hole or holes in a wall along a bluff. However, she also seemed to recall that these holes were too small to get into.

After breakfast, the three of us set out to look for "Mel's Hole," since it was a great day for an early afternoon walk. We found it without too much trouble, and it proved large enough to crawl into. By this point, conversation had almost completely degenerated to various puns and such about "Mel's Hole."

Inside the hole we discovered a small system of sandstone crawl tunnels, and were mighty pleased with ourselves. Soon we'd explored all of the few branching tunnels but one; all the others had dead-ended. This final crawl tunnel led into a sewer tunnel.

This tunnel was 6 feet or so high and just wide enough to walk down more or less normally. There were ledges on the sides on either side of a central trench, which was where the raw sewage ran. The air deeper in the system was quite humid and steamy. The tunnels' walls and ceiling were covered with "snotsicles," or "boogar stalactites," the dangling, jiggly slime mold often found in nasty sewers.

We were not prepared for serious exploration, and so our initial exploration of this sewer maze was limited. We went in far enough to determine it was quite extensive, and connected to larger sewage lines. There were hundreds of short dead end side passages for house connections; you could often see rats lurking in these if you cared to look.

Sewers are not pleasant places, and Action Squad generally does not spend much effort exploring them unless they might lead to somewhere else. In the Twin Cities, all kinds of unexpected connections can be found in the subterranean sandstone. However, since we had no reason at that time to think there was a connection to anything good, there was no reason to think we'd be back. Of course, we were wrong.

Months later, we got ahold of a sewer strip map that showed what appeared to be part of a large maze of abandoned brewery caves beneath what is now the Landmark Brewery. We'd known there were supposed to be caves down there; what we had not known was where they were located and that they were so damned extensive. Most brewery caves we've explored have been quite simple systems, with access usually "at level" in the base of a bluff. These "caves," however, were actually cellars, dug out from above. We knew we had to get into them somehow.

A couple manhole-hunting trips turned up no likely entrance points, and Action Squad cartographer Slim Jim began examining our drain and sewer maps to see what went into the area.

He found a potential route through the Mel's Hole Sewer Maze to the vicinity of the caves, and so we decided to revisit the sewers on our way to the abandoned brewery cellars. We knew there might not be a connection, and we knew it would be a long walk through the sewers but we had no idea at all what we were in for.

Trip 1: December 22, 2001

Max Action, Slim Jim, Danarchy, and Captain Nordic
Trip 2 : March 15, 2002

Max Action, Slim Jim, and Danarchy

We remembered from our previous trip into the sewers that a particular street's sewer tunnel was a more major line than the others, and was choked with semi-stagnant raw sewage. We'd need to get through about four or five blocks of it. Therefore, we were all wearing deep rubber waders when we set off for Mel's Hole that evening.

We got in, navigated through the crawl tunnels and the sewer maze without incident, until we reached the deep-sewage tunnel I mentioned a second ago. Prior to that point, we'd scarcely had to get our feet dirty; the tunnels mostly had ledges to walk on either side of the sewage trench. In the spots where the ledges were too slick and poorly angled, or when the buttsnot-coated ceiling was too low, we walked in the sewage-filled trench. This usually carried only six inches or so of sewage.

The tunnel we faced now was nightmarish in comparison. There were no ledges to walk on; the entire tunnel was flooded with thick, oozing sewage. Unlike other passages, in which the waste flowed along in mainly liquid form, the sewage here was a semi-stagnant stew that got thicker deeper down. It was about mid thigh deep, although this varied depending on how far we sunk into the muck at the bottom.

Since the solid waste keep us several inches up from the original tunnel floor, the tunnel was too low to walk upright in: we were forced to stoop to keep from hitting our heads on the absolutely disgusting ceiling, which was covered in snotlike slime mold formations and cockroaches. The roaches were bothered by our lights; in trying to flee, they would bump into each other and fall, causing a light rain of them to fall down on us as we progressed through the nearly waist deep sewage.

Of course, leaning forward meant walking with our faces down toward the surface of the sewage. You probably think this tunnel smelled bad. Nope, it didn't. You see, rotting raw sewage in a confined space somehow goes beyond bad, and beyond smell, as well and into a whole new dimension of wrongness. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever experienced.

Imagine taking a big, messy shit, eating it, throwing it up, eating it again with a little shampoo on top, letting it digest a bit longer, throwing it up again, and then pissing on it. Now imagine how that would smell if you pushed a couple globs of it up your nose and left them there to fester for several weeks. That would be close, I'd imagine.

We had about 5 or 6 blocks of this to get through before we got to where the sewer went over, under, or, hopefully, connected with, the Stahlmann Brewery Cellars. As we went deeper up the sewer, the air grew worse and worse. I noticed that the mist in the tunnel was not the standard humid tunnel fog; it formed in clouds with hazy, yet distinct, edges. I was reasonably sure these were methane clouds. There was no air movement at all. Making things worse, as we slogged through the human waste goo on the tunnel floor, bubbles rose up through the more liquid upper layers; we were freeing pockets of trapped methane created by decomposing waste.

Just as we were getting near our goal, I paused and focused on my body. My breathing was coming far too quickly. I felt out of breath, and was sweating profusely. More disturbing was my heart: it was trip hammering along just as fast as it could.

"Hey, everybody stop. Are your hearts going really, really fast?"

Everyone paused, and a round of affirmations sounded out.

"We're not getting enough oxygen. We've gotta get the fuck out of here."

There was very little discussion or debate; we just turned around and started back, moving more quickly than we had on the way in.

I don't know what was going through the other guys' minds as we made our way back through the almost deep filth as fast as we could. I was trying to be calm, even as I bit on my tongue in an effort to make sure I remained fully conscious.

I mainly worried about someone passing out. What would I do (assuming it was not me that succumbed)? Try to drag the stricken person out with me, and increase the odds of passing out as well? Or leave them there, get out, and get help to come back for them? I knew the latter option was the one I should choose, but somehow I was not at all sure I could just leave someone in there to die, floating in shit.

We waded as quickly as we could; the sewage was deep, it was slippery, it was thick, and it was not conducive to rapid movement. In my haste, I splashed raw sewage up into my eye. I was too worried about losing consciousness to worry about what kind of disease my poor eyeball might come down with.

What seemed like a long, long time later, without warning, we made it to air that seemed like fresh air from heaven. To anyone else, no doubt, it would have been dank and smelled like shit but our perceptions were a bit biased after what we'd just been through. None of us had passed out, so I never had to find out what I'd do in such a situation. Captain Nordic, who suffers from asthma to begin with, did report that he'd started seeing black spots before we hit the better air.

After a good rest, we got our reeking bodies back into motion, and navigated back out toward Mel's Hole, and out into the freezing night, which at least cut down our stench by partially freezing the sewage we were coated with.

We'd failed on our first attempt, badly. Those sewers had effectively routed our asses, and it sucked. We all agreed that fainting in a sewer and choking on shit was a pretty lame way to die, and that we'd all prefer the methane to ignite and blow us up. If you've gotta die, death by explosion is pretty cool. But I digress

So, anyway ... initially, we plotted a gear-based second attempt, and did some looking into getting our grubby mitts on some light, backpack type air tanks similar to those used in scuba diving.

However, Slim Jim the mapmaster studied the maps some more and reported that there was another potential route to try out. This route would avoid the death trap tunnel, but would require navigating the "super slippery spraying slide of piss," as Jim insisted on calling the several block long, sloped sewer tunnel featuring high-speed sewage that sprayed up all over when you put your foot into it.

It seemed worth a try, especially if we got to avoid the tunnel that had almost done us in


Employees of the Stahlmann Brewery posing for a group photo in 1870.

(click to see full size)



Some keg taphole caps we found



A bottle Max found

A few months later, Action Squad made our second attempt at conquering the Stahlmann's Brewery Cellars. We took the same route through Mel's Hole, and then walked for over a mile through the sewers, using a new route. The main tunnel we faced this time was much more pleasant than the one last trip, if any sewage tunnel can really be called pleasant. Rather than deep, stagnant and semi-solid waste, this tunnel featured ankle deep, fast-moving, liquid sewage.

It still stunk, but the air was easily breathable. The sewage rapids joined with a couple of other sewer tunnels and the combined flow headed toward a main sewer line, which would sweep anyone stupid enough to enter it away. You'd be dead long before they found your battered, sewage-choked corpse smashed against a grate at the Pig's Eye sewage treatment plant.

So we instead went upstream, up one of the other, smaller sewers, in the direction of the brewery. This sandstone-walled passage was pretty uneventful up until we unexpectedly rounded a corner and found ourselves in a sewer sauna. The air was thick with hot, stinking steam. Not fog or mist, but actual steam.

It was impossible to breathe standing up, but the steamy air was slightly cooler and less humid down low. I had to lead the way on all fours, crawling on the filthy ledges on either side of the sewage trench. Boiling hot water from either the Landmark Brewery or the Gopher Ethanol Plant poured down into the sewer, mixing with the sewage and creating the thick, billowing clouds of sewer steam. Danarchy's glasses fogged up hopelessly, rendering him essentially blind. I kept thinking about the bacteria and viruses and other nasty microorganisms I was probably flooding my lungs with.

The air got somewhat better after fifty feet or so; while it was still hideously humid and hot, we could at least breathe while standing upright.

At this point, we were faced with what appeared to be two dead ends, and I felt myself getting disheartened. However, we knew we were right by the caves, so I went to check out one of these dead ends while Jim crawled up a side tunnel to examine the other. Just as I concluded there was no way of getting anywhere from the dead end facing me, Jim's voice came back to Danarchy and me. "The caves! This is them!"

The excitement in his voice pulled us in, and we followed him up the tunnel, which was covered in dripping brownish-green slime.

I was puzzled to find him lying at what looked like a dead end of a tunnel, rather than capering about in a cave. "The cave are through this hole," he said with certainty, and pointed upward at a space the size of an elongated grapefruit at the top of the wall that blocked the tunnel end.

We wormed past each other in the narrow space so I could take a look. Visible through the gap was a brick wall, and a space that certainly seemed larger than a sewer tunnel would be. I could hear water splashing loudly somewhere.

Closer examination revealed that the dead end consisted of a large slab of sandstone that had fallen down over the small tunnel mouth. However, no amount of shoving was effective in persuading the boulder to move. We discussed trying to find another way in as I worked at enlarging the opening.

First, I was able to dislodge several smaller chunks of limestone that were piled atop the large one. This gave me enough room to stick my head upward and look around a tiny bit, until a huge centipede fell in my eye and distracted me considerably. I opted to explore by feel, and discovered the top of the sandstone tunnel mouth was a rather thin ridge, not a solid mass.

Jim passed me the hatchet we'd brought along for this very purpose, and I rolled onto my back and got to work. Within moments, I was well-covered in broken-off rubbery slime tendrils and sand. The sand got into the neck of my shirt and down into my chest high waders. It did not improve my mood.

However, my stubborn refusal to back down had kicked in when I started hatcheting, and I kept chopping away. Larger chunks of sandstone dislodged were passed back to be viewed and approved of by my companions.

After a short time, I had opened the gap up to a point I thought I could squeeze through. I was halfway through the extremely tight hole when I felt the blockage shift slightly. With my new leverage, I was able to shift the rock away from the tunnel mouth a few crucial inches and pass into the space beyond.

I yanked the boulder back a few more inches to make passage more pleasant for Slim Jim and Danarchy, and then took stock of my surroundings, giving a verbal run down to the others as they made their way up and in.

"These are the caves, alright! Big space, really misty. Cockroaches all over the walls and oh, fuck, the air is really bad in here. It's like that sewer from last time heavy methane odor. Slime mold all over the ceiling looks like several side passages."

By then, the other guys had come in and could see and experience the caves for themselves. "Shit, the air IS bad in here," someone said. We'd expected the caves to be a reprieve from the nasty, stinking, low-oxygen air of the sewers. Instead, they were worse. Well, worse than the ones we'd just been through, that is; they were not as bad as the sewer that we'd almost died in on our last attempt.

The Brewery Cellars were, in many aspects, amazing. The system was very extensive, with many side passages, caves, and tunnels; mapping them was almost impossible to do. The major caves were about 15 feet high. There were steaming hot waterfalls, rats, walls seething with cockroaches, piles of keg tap covers, brick arches supporting crumbling natural limestone and sandstone walls, old pipes and stonework in short, a wide variety of nifty stuff to check out.

That said, we were not having the great time you'd expect, given how hard we'd worked to get into the place and how cool it was in many respects.

You see, the Cellars had the worst fucking atmosphere of any place we've ever explored. Everything was covered in slime, a heavy mist made sight and photography almost impossible, it stunk horribly, and the air was very thin and hard to breathe.

Unless you've been somewhere similar, you have no idea how hard it is to enjoy yourself in bad air. It is not something you can just ignore or get used to, like a bad smell.

We should have been running around exploring like maniacs. Instead, we trudged along, as if exploring the system was a duty, and not something we were doing for fun. We kept making trips back to the entrance hole: the very stinking, humid air we'd hated in the sewer tunnel suddenly became "fresh air" to be savored.

I felt slow, stupid, hot, sweaty, and weak. I was excruciatingly aware of the slime, sand, and sewage that I was coated in, on both sides of my clothing. I was all too conscious of the long, shitty walk back to the surface. No one smiled much as we made our rounds in a slow, desultory manner, and our usual banter was nowhere to be found. A lot of time was spent kind of sitting around while someone went to check something out. It's surprising how much effect crappy air can have on people.

After awhile, Danarchy revealed that he was having a hard time breathing. I was fast getting sick to fucking death of the place, myself. Slim Jim doggedly wanted to continue mapping the system, even though he admittedly was not having any fun.

We agreed that we would leave and come back again soon to finish our exploration; just maybe the new hole we'd created would help air things out a bit in the meantime (yeah, right). We took a different route back to the Cellar entrance in the name of further developing the map Jim was working on, and got the fuckin fuck out of Dodge.

At the time, it sucked ... but I must say that in retrospect, the place ruled. OK, so maybe we were not having a great time while actually exploring ... but I'm certainly getting plenty of pleasure looking back at it now, from the comfort of my home.

And damn it, that counts for something.



Trip 3
Mid-May 2002
In mid-May, Slim Jim, Captain Nordic, Danarchy, and I returned to the Stahlmann Brewery Cellars to see the rest of the system and try to get some better photos. We donned our waders and took the usual way in, splashing through over a mile of sewer tunnels. This does not get more fun with repetition. Trust me.
We did not get the sauna treatment this time, (thank Gug), and we were further pleased when we discovered that the air in the caves was much better than it had been, for reasons we were never able to determine (unless the entrance hole we opened up really made that much of a difference). Danarchy had brought a tripod, a good camera, and what we dubbed "the sun": a 3 million candle power light. As a result, he was the only one who got pictures worth reproducing here in the heavy mists of the Cellars. So, all of the pictures on this page, with the exception of the last one, were taken by him.
We discovered some new shafts, new features, and a lot more slime, roaches, and rats. It was great. Afterward, we decided to cheat on the way out, and take a shortcut to the surface, using a manhole cover in a rarely-used road at around 1:30 in the morning. The metal ladder up to the manhole was electrified by an old power line that ran down to some lights in that section of sewer (!?!?!), so we got shocked periodically on our climb upward. It was kind of funny.
Then, I emerged from the manhole just as a staggering drunk guy wandered over, and things got funnier. He just kind of stood there, swaying alarmingly, as four dudes came crawling out of a manhole cover in the middle of the road, covered in slime and dirt. Then he brandished an unlit cigarette and asked us for a light. Being nonsmokers coming from a methane kinda environment, we had none. He stared at us for a few moments and then stumbled off, muttering angrily about "tunnel rats." I really hope that he remembered the incident in the morning ...

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