By Hubert & Charlotte Rother
St. Louis: Virginia Publishing Co, 2004
(reprint of 1996 book, written in 1964)
ISBN # 1-891442-27-9
119 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2009

Hubert and Charlotte Rother were interested in and explorers of St. Louis City caves. This volume, written in 1964, catalogues a 30 year period of this interest and exploration.

The primary focus is on brewery caves, primarily of the southeast part of the city, but they include some north St. Louis brewery caves, other smaller caves and caves used for other purposes than storing beer. Happily for me this last section included some stories of caves in my own Dogtown neighborhood.

One of the primary caves they discuss was the huge Lemp Cave over the top of that brewery. I was especially delighted to read that the Lemps’ personal home had three large pipes coming into it from the cave. One carried hot water, another cold water and the third carried draft beer! Now that’s some luxury, though I would prefer a pipe carrying a decent cabernet sauvignon!

There is a long chapter on the Cherokee Cave which was opened to the public in the 1950s and 60s as a tourist attraction and had been an underground beer garden in the late 19th century.

Early on some rare peccary bones (a pig-like animal) were found in this cave. It is the northern most location peccary remains have ever been discovered in North America. I remember walking alone in a remote area of the St. Helene’s Cloud Forest, a mountain area of Costa Rica, a few years ago and I frightened a peccary on this little dirt trail I was following. It ran like crazy from me, but I’m quite sure I was much more frightened by it than it by me!

Uhrig’s Cave, very close to today’s Union Station also had an underground beer garden. It became quite popular in the latter part of the 19th century. It had nightly operatic music, a skating rink and parts of the cave were used to raise mushrooms!

Perhaps the most popular of all the caves was the Coliseum Cave, and the Coliseum building built over it at the corner of Washington and Jefferson. Here Enrico Caruso sang, Johnny Weismueller swam and Bill Tilden played tennis. The Democratic party held its 1916 convention there, and the Republics were there in 1928. As I mentioned at the outset, the bulk of the book concerns the brewery caves. However, there is a short section at the end of the book that deals with caves used for drainage, and here they speak about the Dogtown area where I live. Since I have a great interest in the history of this area I want to cite their treatment of these natural caves:

“Natural Sewers

“The most unpleasant function for the caves was sewage disposal. Nevertheless, this was a necessary service in the southwest part of the city, drainage and sewage disposal were severe problems, especially for early residents of Oak Hill, Cheltenham, Clifton Heights, Benton Ellendale. These early suburbanites were drawn to the area by the availability of rapid transit, but soon discovered that the River Des did not accommodate the increasing population’s demand for water. Moreover, the area lacked a good sewage system. Looking for the best way to dispose of waste, the residents turned to the region’s caves for a solution.

“In the 1880s, an instructional pamphlet offered tips on locating caves in the Ellendale area. One recommendation was to observe sinkholes. Sinkholes filled with debris and giving the appearance of large, shallow dents in otherwise level areas warranted investigation. Apparently, the accumulation of leaves, branches and litter indicated that rainwater washed into the depression and disappeared below. Once the was cleared away and the projecting fragments of stone debris were removed, a hole usually was found.

“One of these drainage pits was large enough to he seen quite clearly. William L. Thomas owned the piece of property south of the Missouri Pacific Railroad track on which this cave stood. The hole was about eight feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. In 1880, Thomas and some friends descended and entered a chamber large enough for a man to up inside. They found a running stream, which they claimed emptied into the River Des Peres. It seems that all of the cave fissures found and used in this area had streams that flowed in the direction of the river. Stories were told of fissures either opening into or leading to large, cave-like chambers.

“The Ellendale residents were content with their natural sewers, but some Benton-area residents artificially enlarged their fissure system. In the 1880s, a site was chosen for a meeting hall on Manchester Road, near the train station. A hole in the ground drained all the rainwater from a large area around this site. A gentleman named Arnold Koch entered the hole and discovered at its bottom the usual chamber leading into a tunnel. Carrying a candle, he crawled about three hundred feet, passing under Manchester Road and the railroad tracks. Although he could see a light in the distance, he decided not to go any farther alone. Only a few yards from where he turned back, he saw another opening into the tunnel. The trend of the fissure was toward the River Des Peres. The builders of the meeting hall installed drainpipes from the basement to the fissure and built a covering over the hole.

“One block north of the hall on Manchester was another depression containing a hole and fissure. Between the location of that depression and the city blocks to the west of Manchester, the high ground sloped into a valley. In the valley, at about the same level as the tunnels, was an opening in the ground, which created a fissure in the rock large enough for a man to crawl on his hands and knees. It was thought that all three of these fissures were interconnected, and a workman at the hall advanced the theory that the tunnel led to a cave in which there was a river. He said that such a cave had been discovered years before, north of the hall, but that the exact location had been forgotten when a cave-in sealed the entrance. Residents in the area made use of the many fissures and tunnels by constructing regular connections with these natural sewers.

“Exact locations of some of these early cave systems were recorded. One early cave system began near 2005 Blendon Place and extended southwest to Ecoff and Manchester avenues. This is referred to as Unnamed Cave #2 by the Missouri Geological Survey.

“Another cave originated near Hudler and Hoffman avenues and had two smaller caves extending out from it. All entrances to these caves are believed to have been filled when the Hoffman Avenue sewer was built. The Unnamed Cave #4 of St. Louis was located at Ivanhoe and Marmaduke Avenues. The original entrance disappeared long ago. Early residents recalled hearing stories about the cave, although no one had ever been inside. We investigated the area again when buildings were being demolished to make way for 1-44 but, unfortunately, we didn’t discover any caves.

“We heard rumors of yet another cave entrance, located in the basement a commercial building on Southwest Avenue. The cave was said to run in the direction of the pond in Clifton Park. We examined and explored every basement in the area, but our efforts proved fruitless.

“The only trace of a possible cave in this section of St. Louis is a “natural drainage hole” in the area of Ellendale Avenue and Ellendale Place, near the Frisco Railroad track and just west of McCausland. After a hard rain, water standing in the depression would suddenly disappear

“When the River Des Peres was rerouted underground in 1931, all traces of the cave system were buried along with it.”

This little book is a delightful read and harks one back to much simpler days with simpler pleasures. And, of course for me, it brings dreams of some daring folks still discovering caves right here in Dogtown.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu