I believe that caves will always hold a special appeal to people. Only a few thousand years ago, a cave was the best haven we could ever hope for. Imagine how cozy it must have felt, to be safe and sound in your cave, with a fire roaring under a whole deer leg and one of those newfangled dog creatures chewing his bone beside you.
Even without nostalgia, the Wabasha Street Caves have their own special appeal. You couldn’t find anywhere else that is better suited to be a nightclub, a mushroom farm, or a movie set. The caves were dug out for their sandstone starting back in the 1840s (thus technically making them mines). They were thoughtfully dug out at that, so rather than being some treacherous, bat infested labyrinth the caves are now so level as to be navigable by wheelchair.
Eventually the demand for illicit hooch replaced that of sandstone, so the caves became a speakeasy. The demand for hooch persisted after its legalization, so the speakeasy became the Castle Royal, a legitimate nightclub, in 1933. St. Paul was a hotter bed of sin back in the 30s than it is today, which attracted some unsavory clientele to the club. John Dillinger was known to stop by and spend some of his hard-earned money there.
After the war, the caves became a somewhat lower key mushroom farm. And then, for a long time, they were nothing. (We can count a brief stint as a discotech as nothing.) Right before the city was set to demolish the Wabasha Street Caves and their beautiful castlelike facade, Steve and Donna Bremer bought them to store their construction company’s equipment in. They would ultimately appreciate their unconventional real estate’s value as an event venue and tour site.
You’re not left to wander the caves alone on a tour. You are given a cheerful guide, like my group’s Deborah. “I am a veritable fountain of useless information,” the golden haired woman announced to the group. “I know so much that I could give you a three hour tour . . . but you know what they say about three hour tours,” breaking off into the Gilligan’s Island theme.
First we poked around the nightclub. It has been restored by the Bremers, whom we may fairly assume know a bit about construction, to all its original glory. White stucco ceilings vault overhead, and the long, fully stocked bar is a beautiful green and brown glass beacon. We were taken to the stone fireplace, still chipped here and there by the 230 grain bullets of a Thompson submachine gun. There had been some dispute that left three stiffs at the nightclub a few decades ago, which the cops promptly addressed by insisting to the sole witness that it never happened.
A cave without carpeting and a bar is not quite so cozy a place. The unfinished portion of the Wabasha Street Caves proved positively nippy, but in it we could see just how meticulously the miners had carved out its walls with picks. Here is where mushrooms were once grown, as evidenced by the mushroom growing apparati left behind, and here is where the film crew of Thin Ice carved some crude petroglyphs to liven up a scene’s background.
Outside of one ghost sighting, most of the action happens in the nightclub. There the Wabasha Street Caves management hosts swing night on Thursdays, with the kind of live music that would have been right at place during the Roaring Twenties. You can even have the whole club to yourself if you’re planning a special event, such as a wedding. Many romantic unions must have been forged in caves throughout history.
You can learn more about the Historic Cave Tour, as well as the Wabasha Street Caves’ Lost Souls Tour and Saint Paul Gangster Tour, at wabashastreetcaves.com.
By David Scheller