1915 sewer cover on Hamline Avenue (Photo: Patricia Bour-Schilla)

Back in my younger and more foolish days, I spent a lot of time exploring the sewers under the Fort Road neighborhood of Saint Paul. The tunnels run under every street at an average depth of about thirty feet. These tunnels, which carry raw sewage, were dug out of the St. Peter sandstone bedrock with handpicks more than 100 years ago. Their floors are paved with brickwork. I once painstakingly measured the aggregate length of this sewer labyrinth on sewer maps and found it was thirty miles long—the length of the famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The funny thing is, it’s almost totally unknown to the public.

My motivation was simple curiosity about this strange netherworld of fermenting brickwork, and I kept a sewer diary to record my impressions. I wore plastic trash bags over my clothes, but even so, sometimes I had to discard what I had worn because it was caked with filth. I carried food, but the problem was finding a place clean enough in which to eat it. I usually explored alone because no one would go with me, and these ventures marked some of the loneliest moments of my life. I once jokingly referred to the sewer labyrinth as the Diamond mine, hoping to motivate squeamish friends to accompany me, holding out the prospect of finding wedding rings that had been flushed down the drain. Unfortunately, nobody was that stupid, and I never did find any rings.

Subterranean Twin Cities (2009), published by the University of Minnesota Press

Despite the sewers’ eerie isolation, I wouldn’t have cared to meet anyone down there anyway. In fact, what further unnerved me during my long solo expeditions was the ghostly reflection of flashlight beams from water surfaces onto the walls, which produced the momentary illusion that someone was approaching or retreating from me in the tunnels. After a while, you begin to hear voices in the dripping water.

It was a long time before I overcame my fear of sewer gas. Overall, the tunnels smelled vaguely like garlicky summer sausage. But there were pockets of better and worse. Lengthy dead-end passages, flooded with stagnant, blue-green septic pools, for example, were pretty overpowering. Laundromats overhead, with their sudsy downward discharges, provided a welcome olfactory oasis in the sewers below. And walking under Fort Road toward downtown, I could always tell when I passed Cossetta’s, one of my favorite restaurants, owing to the pleasant, steamy aromas. Finally I would arrive under Seven Corners, where the passages branched out under the Loop.

I encountered rats, too—aplenty. One day, while strolling under one of the city’s charity soup kitchens, I observed fresh pasta floating in the sewage. Following the stream, I came to a pipe vomiting pasta into the tunnel. Swarms of sleek, fat rats clustered about, feasting gluttonously. They parted ahead of me in the narrow passage when I approached, then closed the gap behind, squeaking in protest all the while. I actually welcomed comic relief like this, considering how perilously far I was from human aid.

There’s very little graffiti in the tunnels, except for the initials of public works personnel, but I once encountered a very elaborate wall carving of a tree—carved in relief!—with intertwined branches, several feet high. It seemed symbolic of the labyrinth as a whole, with its endless, branching passages.

Greg Brick, a native of Saint Paul, teaches geology at local colleges. His latest book, Subterranean Twin Cities, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2009. His work has been featured in National Geographic Adventure magazine as well as on the History Channel.

Posted in: Memories, Places, Prose
Tagged: 2010