Subterranean blues: What lies under the city that is worth risking your life to see?

Throne Under a Bridge
Throne Under a Bridge, a photo by Ian Talty posted Monday, April 20, at his Joy of the Mundane photo blog.

The question, from those who lack imagination, is why?

Why would anyone want to go into a cave or tunnel under the city? Pungent, clammy, dark, littered with garbage, slick with sewage, and rife with death scenarios, the appeal seems very limited — at least, on the surface. Underground, though, that question is quickly answered, say experienced subterranean explorers. Yes, you could die down there. But first, you might see rare wonders and experience the thrill of discovery that isn’t easy to find anymore above ground.

Today, just about any location you type into Google maps pulls up a photo that clearly tells you that Killroy was already there — in fact, he’s there now, or his car, captured by the super-powered Google satellite camera. But that camera can’t see underground. The hundreds of miles of caves and tunnels that snake below the surface of the Twin Cities have to be seen in person to be believed, although their highlights are increasingly documented online, too.

One place to see what lies below is The Joy of the Mundane, the Tumblr blog maintained by Ian William Talty, a Woodbury photographer who regularly explored the urban underworld. He died on April 26 when a torrent of rainwater hosed him out of a tunnel in St. Paul and into the Mississippi below, where he drowned. His exploring companion, Nick Breid, survived.

Known as the West Kittsondale or Triple Helix
That particular tunnel is known by St. Paul’s Public Works employees as the West Kittsondale tunnel, and by urban spelunkers as the Triple Helix, because its wonders include three spiral staircases that coil in opposite directions.

Geologist and explorer Greg Brick describes the site in “Subterranean Twin Cities” (University of Minnesota Press),  the first comprehensive local guide to natural and man-made underground “tourist attractions.” Similar guides exist for New York, London, Paris and other major cities, leading geologists, historians, artists, explorers and thrill-seekers into the rabbit holes that run to hidden paradise. Brick says people have been interested in underground worlds for centuries, and for myriad reasons, but now the Internet has made it easier than ever to access these places.

“Around 2000, the exploration movement took off,” said Brick, who also wrote “Iowa Underground: A Guide to the State’s Subterranean Treasures” (more exciting than Iowa’s above ground treasures, perhaps).

“Everyone was posting information online, and people were starting to visit caves that I regarded as sensitive. I discovered a major bat hibernaculum under Minneapolis, and these kids were starting to go down there. I work with the DNR and learned that there was a sizable population of rare Eastern Pipistrelle there, and I was worried about them. So I created this diversion. I said, ‘Hey guys, you wanna see something spectacular, go check out this Triple Helix tunnel! It’s got three stairways and it’s really something.’ ”

Architectural features, plus elaborate graffiti
Thus the legend of the Triple Helix grew, attracting people from as far away as Alaska and Australia, and becoming especially popular among artists and photographers. In addition to its architectural features, it’s the site of numerous elaborate works of graffiti. Despite its relative familiarity, the tunnel, like most underground areas, is the last place one would want to take refuge from a rain.
“I have never knowingly gone underground when it was raining. I have been caught by surprise by sudden storms, when the weather changed when I was underground, but to knowingly go into a tunnel like that when rain is coming on is unbelievable,” says Brick.

Talty’s wife, Nicole, has said that Talty was experienced and aware of the risks. Brick scoffs. “People lose respect for the underground when they visit and have no problems. Sometimes the first time you encounter a problem, you die.”

But for some, that very possibility adds to the allure of the underground. Cary J. Griffith’s new “Opening Goliath” (Borealis Books) follows seasoned spelunkers and wandering teens into Minnesota caves, where they find things like stone waterfalls, relics of human antiquity, and a stash of gunpowder large enough to turn downtown St. Paul inside out. It’s a hair-raising read: John Ackerman, an intrepid and controversial figure in the local caving community, nearly dies when he experiences equipment problems while diving into unexplored, silt-filled underwater passages (and yes, he goes back for more). A group of five teenagers goes into a downtown St. Paul cave, encounter carbon monoxide — and only two live to tell the tale.

Touring began at Mystery Cave
“I don’t want to discourage people from going underground,” says Griffith. While Brick has been underground for decades, Griffith took his first extensive cave tour just five years ago, at Mystery Cave at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. He’s impressed, but not addicted; in places, his book conjures the feeling of claustrophobia he’s experienced underground.

“I’m all for exploring. It’s beautiful, otherworldly. Geologic formations are just fabulous. There’s interesting stuff down there in the man-made caves, too, but they represent a larger danger, with debris, explosives. Wherever you go, you have to be knowledgeable; you can’t just go into a cave without learning about it first.”

An online underground education is incomplete, Brick says. The appeal is conveyed, while the danger is not. Both writers encourage people to learn more through the Minnesota Speleological Society (MSS), which offers safe caving information and outings. But the more accidents that occur in the underground, the more likely it is that these worlds will be closed off.

“Every kid knows caves in the neighborhood, and they probably have heard how to handle themselves there, but now with the Web, people are coming from all over and they don’t know what they are doing. The golden age of information on the Web has resulted in a dark age underground, because now that you have so many people doing this, the authorities can no longer ignore it,” says Brick, who wrote only about places that are already well-documented in his book.

Before RNC, certain worlds were closed
In preparation for the Republican National Convention (RNC), legislation was passed that has made it more difficult to explore the urban underworld. For some, the element of operating beyond the law adds further appeal to exploring, but Brick expresses sadness that certain worlds are closed — if not permanently, like the University of Minnesota steam tunnels, then theoretically.

“It’s now a gross misdemeanor to go into many of these places, and I just can’t risk that — I’m a teacher. I don’t need that on my record. Previous to the RNC, the only way they could make it illegal would be to post ‘No Trespassing’ signs on each manhole and entry point. Now, anything called ‘critical infrastructure’ is off-limits.”

“Legislation is a really thorny subject underground,” says Griffith. “In the wake of the teen deaths, the city looked at what would be required to seal off those caves, and it would be in excess of a million dollars. Instead, they sealed it off with sand and put up signs. The last time I was over there, not long ago, I could see somebody was already starting to dig it out.”

Both writers wrestled with how much to reveal in their books, and how to present it without luring more people into danger. “The more you understand about what happens underground, the more you understand the danger,” Griffith said. “Some people at the MSS said, ‘You have to be really careful how you present this.’ They were concerned that by writing about it, we’d have more thrill-seekers risking their necks.”

It doesn’t look as though Talty was seeking thrills. Instead, his photos seem to document a pursuit of strange beauty — and of quiet. The underside of a Mississippi River bridge is juxtaposed with a black and white shot of a decaying farm. Both shots convey a stillness that is increasingly missing from everyday life. In frost patterns, rusting machinery, graffiti landscapes, and tunnel openings, Talty found unexpected loveliness and peace. It’s no wonder he kept going back underground.

“I just can’t stay away. I keep seeing great new art down here,” Talty wrote a few weeks ago.

It’s a shame that his blog will never be updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of the publisher of “Subterranean Twin Cities.” It has been corrected in this version.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Brick on 01/03/2013 - 01:12 pm.

    As one of the authors interviewed for this piece, I would just like to point out that while I did indeed name the Triple Helix Tunnel, it was a much beloved “Artist’s Tunnel” even before I began caving, back in 1988. As I mention in my book, a local photographer was profiled in one of the Metro dailies in 1987 for his work in this same tunnel–exactly the sort of thing Mr. Talty was documenting.

    Nor did I scoff at anyone, my heart goes out to the families concerned, this could have happened to anyone who goes exploring under the cities.

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