Urban Grotto: A Tale from Chutes Cave

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Four urban explorers uncover the hidden entrance to downtown Minneapolis’ historic Chutes Cave in this urban grotto outdoor adventure. 

Trevor Nelson 2014

Here, the temperature hovers around 65 degrees, year round.

Trickles of clear, frigid water crawled down the walls, over galleries of mineral formations, dropping off the ends of stalactites and collecting in deep,  sandy bottom pools. Cold enough it was sharp to the touch. Like molten glass, or the venomous saliva of the hanging fangs of rock.

Oranges, scarlets, maroons, burgundies, browns and jades grew in sculptured forms. The cavern swallowed all noise into distant recesses. One would think there was a vast, empty noiseless world between us and the surface; Minneapolis made no sound loud enough for us to hear below.

If it does not still, this particular section of topside town used to make a lot of sound.

Historically, Minneapolis was known to the world as “The Mill City”. The farming, shipping, sifting, sorting, weighing, bagging, stocking, and exchanging of grain, anything grain, was the name of the game of for the Mill City. Today, mill structures of old stand derelict, in sentinel rows up and down the banks off the cities’ rivers. Our cave, it so happened, was accessible only through the dried up workings of an abandoned grain mill in the bustling St. Anthony Main neighborhood. We made our approach.

The city was blanketed in the dim light of dinner time dusk. The river let off a breezy chill, harassing the hair on the back of our necks and stinging the lobes of our ears. Pale skyline glow from the opposite riverbank mixed with a bath of burning red from the Pillsbury sign perched above us, crowning the old mill. Four of us stood at the edge of the river, at the foot of a ridge, and the mouth of an eerie canal, tunneled back into the raised bluff – a throat, choking on darkness.

This canal was the exit of a hydropower structure called a tailrace.

River water was redirected from not far upstream, through underground tailrace tunnels beneath the mill. It was forced through great turbines to generate power for milling activities. The river was the hydroelectric heartbeat for the mill. The lifeblood continued to flow, albeit at a trickle. A shin depth stream was all that exited the abandoned canal. I rolled up my pant legs and took the first step. Surprised that ice hadn’t yet formed, I bit my lip in anticipation of the cold, and in crippled, limping wades our party moved forward.

Driven deeper by the intriguing sound of rushing water,

and the potential for discovery we ignored the pain of the water and were soon completely enveloped in the palpable darkness of the tailrace interior. Before and above us was a framework of railroad ties and other planks assembled over the water. A fallen plank ramp allowed us to gain the comforts of their height. Packs were opened, soaked shoes exchanged for dry boots and a party of white beams struck from our collective head lamps. The lights searched the walls of the canal.

[ Some story has been redacted to protect the entrance of this historic cave. ]

We moved through a series of small concrete chambers.

Their purpose in the production of milling was unknown to us, they were likely constructed later. Bats found fine roosts in the dry ceilings. Moving methodically around each corner, we turned back from each dead end. The maze seemed to have been constructed with no other purpose than to frustrate our approach to the prize we found in the furthest room.

1909 Chutes Cave survey Courtesy Greg Brick

The back wall had escaped a concrete encasing.

The bare rock was wet and cold. This seemingly benign wall possessed one feature that offered a potential push. The seam between natural limestone and false stone construction included an opening, a gateway to our goal, a beckoning – go deeper. Peering in, the tunnel looked excitingly uncomfortable, squeezed tight with a bed of broken stone. No end in sight. Before plunging in my upper body, I scanned the stone above the hole, half expecting a memorable high school literature scribe to adorn such an appropriate entrance; “abandon all hope ye who enter here”.

There was only room enough to belly crawl, scrunching up, banging a knee or drenching an elbow as we stretched out again to claim another couple of feet.  Like serpents, we continued on. The going got rougher. Our coveralls sponged up more of the pooled moisture, adding pounds to an already tiring weight and insulating and protective apparel. At times we were forced into intimate positions with jagged limestone slabs. Mud smeared the lenses of our lights. Grit buried itself in our hair and nested in our molars. It was gritty, and it was great. We are dirt and to the dirt we will return. With heavy breaths and bruised knees I continued. There was a cave at the end of this Hell Crack.

One hundred and fifty feet of this feels like forever when stones are hanging above your head.

Collapse is a rare accident in the caving community. The caver spends their worries on rising water levels, navigation errors and equipment failure, not collapse. But it was harder to ignore in this case. It was, after all, the 1881 collapse that we were crawling through. A single moment in centuries that the threat was real. This was caving.

 Then came the waft of a scent only the moving air of a cave can provide.A divine scent; a scent of dirt, pure water and stale air – the underground.

The smell of Chutes Cave washed over us.

Grinning, we exited the Hell Crack on a muddy slide. The awe and grandeur of a subterranean cathedral in our own urban backyard was revealed piecemeal as we painted the space with lights. Outside it was cold. In here, I was sweating. Upright pillars of rotting wood, once erected to hold the sandstone ceiling aloft for the safety of bygone tourists on flat boats had begun sinking into the muddy ground. It used to cost the curious wayfarer a dime to be guided through. The expense today is a different cost, paid by a different sort of adventurer. A limestone slab prow extended over a crystalline pool of ground purified water. Ornate carvings and simple graffiti from generations of explorers adorned the easily scraped sandstone walls. The cavern swallowed all noise into its distant recesses. We had capture our thrill.


he feeling was as humbling as it was uplifting of our hubris.

As exhilirating as it was uneasing. We had reached our cave, and, although we had to repeat what was required to get back out, for that one moment, we didn’t care if we ever would. Savoring our victory and relishing an experience that too many ignore, we moved onto the prow over the pool. We took a seat and turned off our lights. sitting in the darkest of darknesses. Just us, the dank smell of the cave, the dripping water and the cool stone. We listened for groans from the bowels of the earth, or sounds from the oblivious bustle somewhere on the surface.


Disclaimer: The act of urban exploration often requires participants illegally trespass. While we at UrbanWild believe the urban exploring community willingly take such risks in respectful pursuit of scientific, historic and artistic enterprise we do not share content to encourage our audience to attempt to access these places. Enjoy their existence as brought to you by those who are qualified, and if you must, direct your curiosity to the caving organizations like the Minnesota Caving Club and the code of ethics they represent.

Recommended Links:

Paper from Underground Expert Greg Brick – Visit his website for more entertaining information on the subterranean world of MSP.

Twin Cities Urban Recon Article 11-08

Action Squad Article 10-00

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On June 2, 2013
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3 Responses to Urban Grotto: A Tale from Chutes Cave

  1. Kmeg says:

    This was awesome! I had no idea any of this existed.

  2. Ruggy says:

    Nice article! I know where this tunnel is, and wish I had explored it decades ago when I was young, fit, crazy enough, and into such things.

    I understand new life has been breathed into these historic tunnels. The Pillsbury “A Mill” above has been converted into lofts, powered largely by a 600 kilowatt hydroelectric turbine apparently using these very same tailrace tunnels.

    • Joe Jackson says:

      Thanks Ruggy!

      You’re correct. There was even consideration to open the headrace tunnel up to the public as part of the historic parks’ experience. I think it’s a win finding new value for old structures that offer imaginative adventures in urban history. I don’t know where the tunnel project is at now, perhaps you’ll still get that chance to explore after all!
      Thanks for reading.

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