ST. LOUIS, Mo. – There are caves under several neighborhoods in St. Louis but the exact location of the tunnels remains a mystery to most people. For over a century spelunkers, map makers, brewers, scientists, and tourists have explored the caverns. They may have even been a part of the Underground Railroad. But, we still don’t know a lot about them and it is possible that we never will.
Most of the caves of St. Louis have been sealed off, filled in, or collapsed on purpose. Cherokee Cave is one of the few known survivors. But, the Missouri Speleological Survey says that there are 38 caves that remain in the city. The entrance to English Cave was recently re-discovered.
“The Lost Caves of St. Louis” was published in 1996. The book shows the approximate locations of 21 caverns snaking through the city. A preview of the tome is available on Google Books. It shows the locations of many of the other caves that dot the area. But, they focus on Cherokee Cave because it is so spectacular.
Amateur historian Dr. William Swekosky described the caves located in southeastern neighborhoods in a 1947 letter. He said that there were sheds and buildings with access to caves like Minnehaha Cave, Lemp Cave, George Schneider Cave, and English Cave. Some of them were used by breweries to store beer before refrigeration.
“In Benton Park, formerly a City Cemetery for indigents, there is a lake. In the past, the lake suddenly disappeared overnight into a cave under it. The hole was plugged in many times,” writes Dr. William Swekosky. “I believe that the caves named after the owners of ground above them are just one large cave that has never been explored.”
The DeMenil Mansion stands near the original entrance to the Minnehaha Cave. A portion of the cave system was open to the public like Meramec Caverns is today. Handrails for tourists are still in the caves. But for safety and legal reasons most people are kept out. It was sealed off in 1961 when Interstate 55 was built and portions of the caverns were filled in. But, some of the caverns remain intact.
KETC-TV toured a portion of the caves in 1998. You can see the tour in the video attached to this story. Living St. Louis Producer Jim Kirchherr went with cave explorer Earl Hancock on an official mission to take more pictures of the cave for an archive. They went in through one of the Lemp Brewery entrances.
The cave system was mapped extensively in the 1960’s before the highway started running through it. Hancock said that there are around 2,400 feet of explored passages that are about 12 feet high.
After the Lemp family stopped using it to store beer, they used a portion of it as a theatre. It was outfitted with lights for the performers and audience. The Lemp family also had a swimming pool in the cave. It was for the family and guests.
There are plenty of maps of the cave system but many of them are incomplete. Sites listed on the maps have interesting names like The Dragon and the Pit of Death.
“The ‘Pit of Death’ is the northward continuation of this passage and has been explored about 100 feet. South of the junction is the ‘Dragon’s Den’, an interesting accessory lateral passage about 75 feet long. You can all but see completely through it,” states a portion of the 1956 description of the system The Caves of Missouri.
The maps and names are so eccentric that some Dungeons and Dragons players have suggested using them as the basis for some of their quests:
In 2018 the Missouri Speleological Survey team from St. Louis won the Merit Award from the Cartographic Salon for their work on the Cherokee Cave system. It shows where the cave is under St. Louis neighborhoods on both sides of I-55. They have a 53-page report that includes new data and pictures plus their award-winning map of the cave.
“Updated version of his Cherokee Cave map with extended profiles through the cave and a nifty overlay of city streets and interstate that display the demise of the commercial operation of this cave. When Interstate-55 construction ran through the city it cut off the commercial entrance trail. Nice historical and geographic notes were also printed on the map. Dan’s map includes extended profiles along the passages which were previously not available.”
This is an old version of the Cherokee Cave map from theMSS. It is located near the intersection of Demenil Place and Cherokee Street.