BRIDGE FACTS

- The original bridge which spanned the Mississippi at this point was built in 1859. Construction of the current bridge (the fourth one) was completed in 1998.

- There are only 15 other bridges of this type in the United States with spans this long or longer.

- The maximum single span length of 397 feet is long enough to clear a football field from goal to goal, plus the end zones and some stands.

- It'
s way fuckin cool getting inside its guts.

Trip 1: 12/21/01: Discovery !
Max Action, Slim Jim, Danarchy, Thumper


The night we found our way into the Wabasha Bridge was also the first night we discovered a way into the TCRT tunnels, after going through five other Labyrinth tunnel systems, two of which (the TCRT and "Wabasha Bridge Tunnels") we had discovered for the first time that same trip. As you can imagine, we were pretty excited already, as we explored the crawl-height sandstone tunnels that we'd discovered far above the ghostly TCRT passages.

Danarchy and I had found this new system while impatiently scouting ahead in the TCRT system, as Thumper and Jim took care of some business (no, that would not be business of a sexual nature). By the time they caught up (we'd made sure it was clear which way we'd gone so they could follow), the two of us had already explored a good portion of the smallish system. We'd discovered that one of the tunnels, which sloped upward at a 45 degree angle, led into a very mysterious space.

The tunnel opened up into a hallway-like passage: rectangular, with a smooth, slanted floor. At the top was what seemed to have once been a sub-basement, although it was now filled with rubble and had what looked like a more recent building's foundation protruding down into it. At the other, lower end of the hallway, was what we think was a vast freight elevator shaft, which went far, far down. We were unable to lean out and see where, if anywhere, this empty shaft led to below. If we ever learn proper climbing techniques, this would be an interesting place to check out some day, we figured. Little did we suspect that one day we'd be back and rappel down the shaft into the Cobb Caves.

Dan and I waited while Jim caught up and checked out the hallway, room, and elevator shaft; Thumper had just discovered she was claustrophobic and opted to wait for us at the entrance to the crawl tunnels.

Unstoppable Jim went to scout out a long, wiggle-room only sandstone tunnel filled with pigeon shit, while Danarchy and I were waited around for him to return. After awhile, we got bored, and decided we should go see what the heck was on the other side of the chained-off passageway we'd passed earlier.

This led us to a strangely-shaped brick and wood passage, which turned back into a short sandstone crawl tunnel, which opened up into a small, partially collapsed cave. It was more than a little unnerving to look at the absolutely massive slab of ceiling that had come down, crushing half the cave. Did something cause it to fall, or did it just one day drop? The cave was seemingly manmade, without an arched ceiling to give it strength. At least, I figured, if it gave way with us in it, the end would be quick. The ceiling, however, was waiting for another day to kill us, and stayed put.

The cave had two tunnels leading from it. There was the one we'd entered from, and another that was almost completely sealed off by a flow of rough concrete that had been poured in to support a newish-looking cement support pillar. When I say rough, I mean it. Not only was the remaining space exceedingly narrow, making passage difficult to begin with, but the concrete was as abrasive as broken glass. As Danarchy wiggled into it, it snagged his clothes and skin in dozens of places, and I knew from similar experiences that he was going to be mighty pissed off if the tunnel led only to a dead end.

After much squirming and cursing, he made it past this obstacle, and paused, training his light ahead. "Dead end." His tone made it clear that these words ranked among the vilest of obscenities. Ahead, the light illuminated the end of the short tunnel, which appeared to be boarded off.

Danarchy crawled through the sandy tunnel to the apparent end, and suddenly his head vanished to the left. There was a long, drawn out pause. "Holy shit." His words echoed as if in a huge space, and I began to get very excited.

"What? What is it?"

Long pause. "I have no idea." Pause. "Whoa."

I made the painful journey over the concrete, and crawled down to join him. The wooden boards, which I'd already been thinking of prying open, turned out to be only the form over which a foot and a half wall of cement had been poured. However, someone or something had dug an opening around this wall, through the sandstone. This is what Danarchy's head had vanished into.

He made room for me, and I stuck my head out. "Holy SHIT!" My first impression was of a cavernous space, a long drop to a distant floor, giant cement walls and ceiling, and an impossible natural wall complete with dead bushes and weeds. My mind, I admit, was well and truly boggled. Initial attempts at an interpretation of what I was seeing included the space between the walls of the Ramsey County Jail and the bluff (some sort of escape-proofing barrier?) or the edge of the Excel Energy Center (which I knew damn well we were nowhere near).

Only when I had pulled back into the tunnel did my mind start working clearly enough to realize this might be some sort of bridge room, albeit one unlike any I'd ever seen or heard of. At about that time Jim returned from his trip through the Pigeon Hole. He reported that after a long, insanely tight wiggle (not even room to crawl), he'd wound up outdoors, in a hole high up on the cliff. Action Squad knew that hole well: we'd talked about the possibility of rappelling down to it (climbing up to it was impossible) on several occasions.

So Jim looked out, and we all sat there trying to get our bearings. Quickly we realized that we were under the Wabasha Street Bridge, and that this was the inside of one of the huge retaining walls. We were in a hole high up on the steep bluff, in a space enclosed by massive cement walls. It was nothing short of amazing; something between a cliff and a cave; a large chunk of the outdoors, indoors. I had the eerie sensation of being in the artificial environment of a zoo exhibit "Ooh, look, mama! Look at the funny animal in the hole!"

Looking down from our little cave, it became obvious pretty quickly that there was no easy way down. The slope beneath the hole was crumbly sandstone at an almost perfect vertical, without adequate hand or foot holds. Even if one got to the first ledge, which was about 7 feet down and to the side, the drop from there was at least twenty feet, and the cliff face went inward as it went down, making controlled descent without ropes or wings rather unlikely.

Knowing we'd be back, we set about searching for something to attach a rope to. Just outside the mouth of the tunnel to the left and back (directly above the first ledge), we discovered an iron rod sticking out of the cement retaining wall which was quite sturdy.

By this time it was fast approaching dawn, and we knew that Thumper, who was still back at the Bridge Room Tunnel's entrance, had to be at work in a few hours. So, vowing to return the next night rather than going on our planned trip to Hamm's Brewery, we squeezed back out past the hateful cement.

Thumper was fine; in fact, she reported that she'd taken a brief nap until thoughts of rats awoke her and made further sleep impossible. We went back out through the multiple tunnel systems, before emerging under a clear night sky. We sought and found sustenance at Mickey's Dining Car, and then those of us who did not have to work went to bed, just as the sun came out completely.

 

 

Trip 2: 12/22/01: Defeat !
Max Action, Slim Jim, Danarchy, Captain Nordic


The next night, we returned, minus Thumper and plus Captain Nordic and a duffel bag full of rope. But I should provide some background before I go further. Earlier in the evening, the four of us had almost died in a sewer. Let's just say that methane is not a friend to humans, and we'd already looked death right in the eye once that day. As exhilarating as it is to spit in death's face, it's also rather exhausting.

So, we went through the maze of tunnel systems that constituted our route to the Wabasha Uber Bridge Room. We secured the rope to the iron bar with straps and heavy clips. I tried to get out onto the rope through the hole and failed. Jim did likewise. I tried going out facing the other way and failed.

We looked down. We looked at the rope. We looked down again. We repeated this process. We realized that just how long a fall it was. We realized that while it would not be completely impossible to get down to the first ledge, it would be more than a little tricky getting all the way to the bottom, and that getting back up into the tunnel might not be possible at all. We got very cold just sitting there not doing much else than looking at the suddenly pathetic rope and the suddenly frightening void.

Jim pointed out that if the exit hole were larger, and more accessible from the left (where the rope was hanging), it would raise our odds of success considerably. I've quite a few hours of first-hand experience in creating and widening holes in sandstone, and realized it was quite possible to do just that, with the proper tools.

We had some exploring to do in the Utility Labyrinth anyway, so we reluctantly called Operation Uber Bridge Room quits for the time being.

Trip 3: 12/23/01: Victory !
Max Action, Slim Jim


The plan had been to come back in a week or two. The plan did not take into account how annoying it was to wake up the next morning, refreshed, and be whacked in the head with the memory of defeat. It sits poorly with me, and, as it turned out, with Slim Jim as well. I called him up the next morning, and the first thing I said to him was "Hey, you know what we should do?"

"Go back and get into that bridge room," he replied, echoing my thoughts.

Danarchy and Captain Nordic were both otherwise engaged for the evening, and the usual gang of Action Squad rogues proved to be similarly elusive. It did not help that we could not invite certain people because anyone not on the thin side simply wouldn't be able to fit through the concrete barrier. Finally, just the two of us went to the hardware store to purchase Farley's Fruit Snacks and some tools to use in sandstone excavation, and by 4:30 PM we were heading back under Saint Paul.

We took the now familiar route to the bridge room hole in the bluff, and set to work. In shifts, one of us worked on doubling up the rope and tying knots in it every foot and a half or so, while the other chopped and sliced and stabbed the edges of the sandstone sides of the hole bypassing the wall at the end of the tunnel. Some time later, the rope was finished and clipped in place, and the mouth of the tunnel was widened sufficiently.

With little fanfare, I descended down to the first ledge. No problem. Before going further, I climbed back up the rope, and tried to get into the tunnel without assistance, as we'd have to do if we both came out. It involved pushing myself into the hole feet first, but it worked just fine, so I went back down to the first ledge. And quickly my heady confidence faded, as I looked down at the drop to the ground.

It was a long way down, and unlike the trip to ledge #1, I"d have to trust my entire weight to the rope, which creaked horribly every time I put some weight on it. I was suddenly painfully aware of how a rope becomes more likely to break the longer the segment you are putting weight on is, and how amateur knots like the ones we'd tied in the rope weaken its strength with their sharp curves. The rope would probably hold, but it seemed pretty foolish to test it out for the first time in a situation where a fall could mean broken limbs or worse in a place where it would be very difficult to get into or out of.

At the same time, I was determined not to go home defeated: we'd had two strikes on this one already, and we all know what three strikes mean. If it came down to my pride or my intact body, which would win especially when the loss of pride was certain, whereas the loss of physical function was merely possible?

Looking up at the cliff face, I realized that there might be a third option. I scaled back up the rope, and then continued upward, using the iron bar we'd connected the rope to first as a handhold, then, as I climbed past the tunnel mouth, as a foothold. This brought me within spitting distance of the top of the bluff. After using a chunk of limestone to create a flat spot in a shale and clay slope, I was positive I could get to the top.

A glance back over my shoulder at the distance downward convinced me that I should make damn sure I'd be able to get back down safely if necessary. Some quick mental choreography showed that a nicely controlled descent would be quite possible, so I started up.

Seconds later, I was dancing at the top of the bluff, victorious.

After I spent some time scouting around a bit and yelling to Jim about the discovery of a door that would not open at the top of the bluff, the sighting of a door at the bottom, and other features, Jim followed the route I'd taken to the top. With some mechanical help, he got the door to open up (it was not locked, merely stuck). As we'd anticipated based on our scouting out of the exterior of the retaining wall, it led out onto a ledge area right up beneath the bridge, between the two retaining walls. Dozens of pigeons fled before us as we explored the ledge, and the ground was inches deep in bird shit.

On the side of the bridge, closest to the Ramsey County Jail, we discovered another door at the top of a short flight of stairs. Inside was another bridge room area, albeit one quite different from the first one in shape. The ceiling and outer wall were made of cement, while the inner walls and floor were made of dirt and natural rock. To the left (toward the jail) we discovered what seemed to be the remains of one of the older bridges that once spanned the river there, and a door with light shining from beneath the crack. Deciding that we did not wish to go down in "stupid criminal news" history as the schmucks who were arrested breaking into a jail, we skipped the door and went back to see what was on the other side of the long space.

This is when we found something totally unexpected and extremely cool: a tunnel. Well, not a tunnel exactly, because it wasn't underground; it was the hollow interior of the bridge, where power and fiber optic cables and a gas pipeline ran across the river, beneath the road and sidewalks above. It was long, it was dark, it was under the surface of something, and it carried utility lines. As far as I'm concerned, it was a tunnel; an unusual addition to the Saint Paul Utility Tunnel Labyrinth.

Before we went down it, we decided to finish exploring the bridge room. Jim discovered a vertical shaft with no rungs that went down to somewhere unknown, while I discovered a second bridge "tunnel" running parallel to the first one, but on the other side of the bridge.

Satisfied that we'd seen all this bridge room had to offer, we set off down the tunnel. It took us across the river, the floor rising and falling with the contours of the arches: dipping deepest at the support pillars, and rising nearest the ceiling at the points between supports. At the end, we were thwarted by a dead end and a bolted down manhole cover, and turned back.

Tunnel #2 was almost identical to the first, other than a lack of the gas pipeline and the inclusion of two raised metal cages with padlocked doors. Climbing over the fences revealed that the cables running through the cage were exposed, for some reason beyond our limited understanding of such things. This tunnel also ended in a small room with a ladder up to a bolted manhole cover, so we headed back.

By 11 PM or so, well over six hours after we left the surface world, we emerged into the night. It was windy and cold, and I'd missed Malcolm in the Middle, but I had no regrets. I'd had an awesome time, and it had been a great way to end three consecutive nights of intensive exploration.