Under Our Feet: Exploring The Tunnels & Caverns Upon Which St. Louis Was Built

St. Louis has long been a city that has existed both above and below ground. Almost since the founding of St. Louis, its residents have used underground tunnels and caves to make beer, hide secrets and influence the ground above. Most St. Louis residents are familiar with the train tunnel through Downtown that MetroLink now uses to access the Eads Bridge, but there are many other fascinating hidden passages under the streets of the city that still beckon exploration.

St. Louis hides its sewers below the surface of its streets, but in the past, much of its largest tunnels were open-air. The River des Peres, familiar to many South St. Louis residents as a giant concrete culvert on the very edge of St. Louis, emerges from an underground tunnel just north of The Hill. It snakes under Forest Park, before coming back above ground in University City. But 100 years ago, the river was above ground, and frequently flooded its banks right in front of the Missouri History Museum.

Right down the central corridor, underneath the train tracks and Highway 40 lies another lost stream, the Mill Creek Valley. Originally dammed to create a small flour mill built by Auguste Chouteau. Choteau’s Lake, behind the mill, served as the recreational area for early St. Louis. Unfortunately, as the city grew, pollution ruined the pond and eventually it was drained and covered over with a massive sewer. But Mill Creek Valley lives on as the name of a thriving, culturally rich African American neighborhood demolished after World War II.

Meanwhile, under the sidewalks of Downtown, the steam loop snakes its way around to a multitude of skyscrapers, public buildings and stadiums. Originally an idea proposed to provide heat and hot water for the new courthouses and civic buildings around City Hall, the steam loop still operates, albeit with a different power source. Originally the Municipal Services Building contained a power plant that fueled the steam loop, but since its closure, the historic Ashley Street Power Plant on the North Riverfront provides the steam in the expanded loop.

Down on the Riverfront, under what is now the Gateway Arch, lies a remnant of the bustling levee that once served as the front door of St. Louis. Back before the Riverfront was cleared of all of its building except the Old Cathedral, a long, elevated train track passed through the area on a giant trestle. Powerful railroad interests refused to budge, and for a long time, it was rumored that the train trestle would remain on the Riverfront, holding up construction of the future Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. But a last second intervention by President Franklin Roosevelt allowed for the placement of the train tracks in a tunnel that passes under the Gateway Arch. Visitors can still catch a glimpse of freight trains as they pass by openings in the tunnel north and south of the Arch.

Just west of Jefferson Avenue at Washington Boulevard, where the old Jefferson Savings and Loan building still stands, was once the site of one of St. Louis’s most famous beer gardens, Uhrig’s Cave. Like many German American brewers, Uhrig used the old caves under the intersection to ferment his beer at steady cold temperatures. Looking for more ways to make money, he built a beer garden out west of early St. Louis, where famous entertainers would perform above the beer cellars. Later, after the beer garden closed, it became the site of the St. Louis Coliseum before becoming Jefferson Savings and Loan. The bank would also become the site of protests during the Civil Right Movement in St. Louis.

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Chris Naffziger


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