A unique use for St. Peter Sandstone caverns?
| This cave was first found while investigating
some strange structures near the Mississippi River. To protect the site
the real names of some streets and the details of the entrance have been
obscured. Access is difficult and requires special equipment and precice
timing due to very active areas nearby.
Upon entering the first tunnel, we found a small sandstone vestibule area with a sharp drop leading 12ft down into a large rectangular chamber. Adjacent to this was a low sandstone tunnel which paralleled the chamber before turning sharply upwards in the style of the stairways to heaven seen in West St. Paul caves. This stairway led to a shrinking tunnel which ended at several small alcoves and a drill hole to the surface through the limestone layer. The main chamber was not explored on this trip due to the lack of a ladder or rope to get out again. Due to the, the fact that one explorer had a visiting friend from Italy, and other factors, this cave was named Scala for the Italian word for ladder. The true nature and appropriateness of this location’s name were not revealed until later examination of the main chamber.
A return trip was organized with the special equipment needed to access the cave, and to descend into the main chamber. Upon entering the chamber, we found that the walls and floor were lined with bricks covered in a thing layer of concrete. The only access was through a partially bricked-up opening high in the front wall, a tiny human-impassible hole from the adjacent tunnel, and two pipes emerging from the front of the room. The room was measured as being 53ft long by 14ft wide, with a slightly curved rear wall and a sandstone ceiling 15ft from the concrete floor. The use of the space was still a mystery, the entrances were too small and inconvenient for goods storage, and the lack of a ground-floor door meant it was not a vehicle garage. The tunnel next to the cave was also a mystery, was it a chimney for heating? A private sewer to someone’s house above, or an uncompleted access tunnel to the business that had built the cave?
Examination of historic Sanborn fire insurance and municipal sewer records had shown several possibilities. One of the oldest public sewer tunnels in St. Paul, dating to 1873, runs nearly beneath the cave. Sanborn maps showed several business which could have used a cave for storage, including a stonecutting operation and a brewery warehouse.
A short time after entering the main chamber, an idea began to form about the purpose of the cave and tunnel. Having recently been in Naples Italy, we were familiar with the Roman-age systems of sandstone water aqueducts and concrete-lines storage cisterns beneath the city. Scala Cave, originally named “ladder” in Italian, was looking more and more like an Italian-style water cistern! The only thing lacking was the vertical well shaft, water from Scala would have been removed through one of the pipes in the outer wall. Water would apparently enter through the sewer-like dropshaft from above, run down the angled tunnel (probably in a clay pipe), and drop into the concrete-lined chamber from the small “chimney” hole. The waterproof lining reached only to just below the inlet, similar to the ancient concrete lining in Neapolitain cistern caves.
Inside this reservoir or cistern were the remains of many prior visits in fairly preserved condition. Mixed with the ashes of campfires were shattered bottles dating from the 1940s and 50s, a charred and rusted hobo stove made from a steel can, and beer cans and bottles which appeared to date from the 1930s or earlier. Barely legible chalk grafitti on the walls included faint names and a nude female figure. A dead raccoon was slowly decaying into the sand, and skulls of rats and mice were found here and there in the sand. Another treasure found scattered through the cave were glass marbles, picked out from the rubble with excited cries each time one was found. All the relics seemed to be left by visitors to the cave, rather than from an original industrial use, supporting the idea that this was a water tank rather than a storage cave. Perhaps this cave had been used by transients waiting to hop trains on nearby main lines. Maybe it was a haven for teens in the way that Lillydale caves became after abandonement, although the relatively sparse grafitti seemed to refute that assumption.
Although we have not conclusively proved the use of Scala Cave as a water storage tank, its many similarities to historic sandstone water cisterns are unmistakable. If this theory is in fact correct, it would be the only example found to date of a cave used for this purpose in St. Paul. Artificial sandstone caves and mines in the region were typically used for mushroom farms, storage, beer lagering, and sand extraction, but bulk storage of water is something never seen here.
The main chamber, 53x14x15ft in size.
The narrow water tunnel looks like a standard St. Paul sewer, combined with a tall thin stairway to heaven as seen in Lillydale caves.
An array of rusty artifacts found in the sandy floor.
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