The colorful history of Minnesota's caves is unearthed in a new book

A local author's new book tells the story of Minnesota's caves.
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Giants once roamed the land where Minneapolis now sits. 

That was an oft-repeated story just after the Civil War, anyway. And its believers insisted the evidence was underground near St. Anthony Falls. The big skeleton of one of those giants could be found in Chute's Cave along with hieroglyphics and various relics of an ancient civilization, explained the storytellers. 

At least they said that until they were outnumbered by those arguing it was all baloney. 

"There's no such thing as Chute's Cave," claimed the new wave of non-believers who said the whole thing was a hoax.

So who's right? And about which part?

Luckily, we have Greg Brick to straighten these things out. 

Brick is a Twin Cities geologist and cave explorer. More than a decade ago he slogged through muck and squeezed between rocks – using Minneapolis sewer maps as his guide – to confirm that there is indeed a Chute's Cave.

And while there's no evidence of giants, Brick's research found that an "amusement resort" did offer torchlight boat rides into Chute's Cave for a fee of 10 cents back in the 1870s.

Cave lore collected in a book

Brick is a leading authority on Minnesota's caves and he's now pulled together the stories of many of them in a book published this summer by The History Press. 

Brick told GoMN it's been 50 years since anyone's written a book about Minnesota's caves, and the ones from decades ago are pretty dry texts, intended for fellow geologists. 

"I want people to think about caves in a new way," Brick said. So he's aimed his book at the average reader and stocked it with anecdotes that bring the caverns to life.

There are about 300 real-life caves that have been surveyed in Minnesota, Brick said. That's a far cry from the 5,000 that Missouri has, but it's also a lot more than the zero you'd find over in North Dakota.

How the caves were formed

In the days before refrigerators Minnesotans would sometimes dig caves out of the soft sandstone rock to store beer or to grow mushrooms. But most of the state's caves were formed by nature, specifically water.

As rainwater filters through certain soils it picks up bacteria that form carbonic acid.

"It's only mildly corrosive," Brick explained. "But over the years that's enough to hollow out some large passages." 

There's one place in the southeastern part of the state where water moving underground hollowed out 13 miles of passages. It's now part of Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park and you can book a tour through the Minnesota DNR. 

He's also included some caves that he calls "illusory" because – like the giants – they were found to exist in people's imaginations rather than reality. 

The best party cave? Mystic Caverns

"If there's a cave I could go back to in time," Brick said, "it would be Mystic Caverns in St. Paul."

This was a mushroom cave dug into the Mississippi River bluff that was converted into a nightclub just after Prohibition ended – much like the nearby Castle Royal, which can still be visited today as the Wabasha Street Caves

Visitors entered Mystic Caverns through the jaws of a giant gorilla (it opened in the same month King Kong premiered in 1933, Brick said). 

Once inside, the spectacle continued. 

"There was a magnificent brass rail bar. They piped music through the caverns," he said. "They had Thurston the Magician, who created special effects in the caves." 

There were also fan dancers – women who tantalized audiences by unfurling oversized fans to conceal their nudity. A series of mirrors was carefully arranged to give the appearance of ghostly apparitions. Even the valets added to the theme by dressing as skeletons. 

Along with Castle Royal, which also occupied a former mushroom cave, it created what one newspaper columnist called "one of the oddest night club belts in the world," Brick wrote in The Growler a few years ago. 

Alas, Mystic Caverns didn't last long. 

"In 1934 police found some technicality to shut them down," said Brick. "Apparently they were having too much fun."

He said nothing's left of Mystic Caverns today. Except for the stories. 

And those, along with many others, are now preserved in a certain book.

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