City Pages – Notes From Underground

Posted on Posted in Adventure, Caves

Standing atop a grit-coated concrete platform some 90 feet beneath downtown Minneapolis, Greg Brick shines his flashlight into the blackness. It’s a grim scene. To his left, a flaccid condom dangles from a corroded protuberance on the tunnel wall. “Must have been an overflow,” Brick cracks dryly. He then directs the light beam beyond the edge of the platform into a fast-moving subterranean river that, at high tide, carried the condom to its current perch. Beneath us, there is a small waterfall, where a metal ladder extends down into gray, translucent fluid; the raw product of innumerable toilets flushing from Brooklyn Park to the IDS Tower.

On city maps, this significant stretch of sewer is called the North Minneapolis Tunnel. Among those who explore the Twin Cities’ nether regions, however, the NMT has a host of nicknames, including the Raging River, the Roaring River, and the Death Hole. “To me, that’s dumb and uninspired,” say Brick of the menacing monikers. The pet name he prefers pays homage to the tiny, shredded strands of toilet paper that line the walls of the tunnel and make it extremely slippery for anyone who ventures into the foul water. “The Silk Road,” he says. “That has a better sound.” Brick likes to engage in irony now and then. The sewers will do that to a person.

Accompanied by Brick’s regular exploring partner, John–a lanky 31-year-old who prefers not to use his last name because he works in private security–we arrived at the NMT easily enough: Armed with no special gear aside from a few extra flashlights and gloves, we first meet at the Stone Arch Bridge on the downtown side of the Mississippi River. After waiting for a passing police car to disappear, we scamper along a rugged embankment through a construction zone, then duck through a cavernous opening in the hillside. Hopping into waist-deep water, wearing just our street clothes, we begin trudging through the storm sewer.

At first our excursion is, while not pleasant, not disgusting. There is the occasional whiff of a disturbing sanitary odor. Brick assures me, though, that the water is reasonably clean. For decades, he explains, the Minneapolis Public Works Department has been working to separate the storm-sewer system, which drains rain and groundwater into the river, from the sanitary-sewer system, which carries more noxious excrement to the Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant in St. Paul. The storm and sanitary sewers do occasionally come together, however; in periods of heavy rain, water will leak into the sanitary sewer, which can then overflow into the storm sewer (and then, sadly, into the Mississippi River). The spot where we spy the dangling condom is one place where this has happened.

Here at the concrete platform, the sanitary fluids don’t smell like shit, per se. But they don’t smell any better. I try breathing through my mouth. It doesn’t help. I feel a queasy twinge. The research I’ve done into Brick’s past trips down the Silk Road don’t help either. On three other occasions, he has endured vomiting and diarrhea for up to 48 hours after coming into contact with the NMT’s water. True to form, Brick has coined a couple of terms for the affliction: the self-explanatory Tunnel Fever; and the more obscure Rinker’s Revenge, a backhanded homage to the city engineer who designed the NMT in the late 19th Century. I ask Brick whether, just by breathing the air, I am in danger of contracting Tunnel Fever. He says as long as I stay out of the rushing water I’ll be fine. He then assures me that we aren’t going to be doing any major “sanitary work” today.

This is a prospecting mission. Brick is looking for a new connection between the storm sewer and the NMT, which could provide him with a new means to reach one of the Twin Cities’ most forbidding underground voids. The size of a half a city block, Schiek’s Cave lies in a maze of sandstone some 75 feet underneath Schiek’s Palace Royale, a down- town strip club. If one has sway with the public works department, there is an easier and far less hazardous way to access the cave, via a manhole near the intersection of Fourth Street and Marquette Avenue. But Brick is determined to find a route that won’t require a blessing from officialdom. And that means locating a new access point upstream. “It’s like Murphy’s Law. If there’s an interesting cave, you can be sure you have to go through some sanitary to get there,” he explains. “All you need is an intestinal tract and the ability to puke your guts out, and you’re ready to go.”


Brick has been exploring, mapping, and researching the Twin Cities’ subterranean voids for the better part of 12 years. The 38-year-old St. Paul native had no particular interest in the underground as a child. He admits to always being a curious sort, however–a “proverbial pocket-protector-wearing nerd.” By the time he’d enrolled at Cretin, a private St. Paul high school, Brick was spending most of his time with books by 19th-century authors such as Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher known for being particularly pessimistic.

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