Here’s a question: Why does Saint Paul have so many more tunnels than Minneapolis? Because we keep Saint Paul boring!
Indeed, Saint Paul’s geography has featured the subterranean since the very beginning when Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant staked his claim at Fountain Cave. And although Saint Paul was well positioned at the northernmost navigable point on the Mississippi, its challenge has always been to connect with the rest of the world atop the bluffs above the river. Minneapolis has tunneled for reasons of its own as well. Let’s take a tour!
This is an exploration of the notable local tunnels past and present that can be visited on foot or by bike. Not included are the many sewer tunnels, submerged streams, the historic Mill District hydropower system, caves, the utility tunnels beneath downtown Saint Paul, or the tunnels connecting buildings at the UofM or state capitol. For a complete guide to many of these features, I highly recommend the book Subterranean Twin Cities by Greg Brick.
Selby Streetcar Tunnel
The most iconic tunnel in Saint Paul is the Selby Streetcar Tunnel, which was built in 1906 to enable electric streetcars to safely climb Cathedral Hill from downtown. The tunnel originally spanned 1,472 feet from just downhill of the Cathedral to the intersection of Nina Street and Selby.
When the Twin Cities abandoned the streetcar system in 1954, the western end of the tunnel was paved over and the eastern end was sealed shut. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to completely seal off something like a tunnel, and for decades the city has fought a losing battle trying to keep out homeless people seeking shelter and urban explorers seeking adventure. In fact, on the day I visited, city crews were hard at work repairing the barrier.
But what if we reopened the tunnel to bicyclists and pedestrians? It’s always been painfully difficult to bike out of downtown to the west. The current choices are steep hills, high car traffic, or a long detour (pick 2). Reopening the tunnel would create an excellent route that isn’t too steep and would turn the city’s ongoing liability into a bona fide attraction. It could be Saint Paul’s answer to the Stone Arch Bridge.
On the other side of downtown, railroads faced the same vertical challenge. After the Civil War, Saint Paul’s railroads began to eclipse the river in trade volume. Most of the city’s warehouses, however, were concentrated in Lowertown near the docks. The most viable route out of the river valley was up the Trout Brook ravine, which quickly became too crowded for all the traffic. The only solution was to build a series of five tunnels, allowing the tracks to criss-cross in a Y shape (known as a Wye in railroad lingo.)
Four of these tunnels remain and are heavily used to this day, the only active train tunnels in the state. In fact, 5% of the country’s daily freight traffic passes through Westminster Junction and the Division Street Wye, which is located just south of Westminster between Union Depot and Dayton’s Bluff.
For the full story of Westminster Junction, read Andrew J. Schmidt’s article in the Spring 1998 issue of Ramsey County History.
Tunnels of the Milwaukee Road & Midtown Greenway
In the early 1900s, South Minneapolis faced a similar problem–too many trains. The busy Milwaukee Road cut through the width of the city at grade just north of Lake Street. By 1909, the city’s 300,000 residents were forced to wait for two dozen freight trains a day to cross the tracks. The solution was to dig a trench spanned by 28 bridges from Cedar Avenue to Uptown. After a near century of rail service, the trench became the Midtown Greenway.
The most contentious part of the project was how to accommodate existing businesses along the line whose access to the railroad would be cut by the trench. Many businesses installed conveyor belts or cranes. The Buzza
Company, which sold greeting cards and inspirational posters, opted to build a rail spur through a tunnel to their building’s basement. This tunnel still remains, its spalled and efflorescent entrance blocked by rusted iron bars.
Further east, the Greenway rides high on an embankment as it nears the river, where it sports another tunnel still very much in use. The Brackett Field tunnel cuts under the Greenway at 38th Avenue, one of several charming pedestrian tunnels in the Twin Cities.
The East Phalen Tunnel
Similar to the Brackett Field tunnel, the East Phalen tunnel was built to provide access to Phalen Park through the Saint Paul & Duluth railroad embankment, which is now the Bruce Vento trail and is planned to be part of the Rush Line BRT corridor. Unlike Brackett, the East Phalen tunnel has no paved trail or sidewalk and seems to be sparsely used. In winter and spring, it’s often wet and muddy, sometimes impassable. From McAfee street on its east side, it’s very hard to find and has no signage or even a curb cut to mark its presence. A few small improvements would reconnect the East Phalen neighborhood to Phalen Park.
Drewry Tunnel in Swede Hollow
Further south on the Bruce Vento Trail is Swede Hollow, which I consider to be the most Saint Paul place in all of Saint Paul. It combines natural beauty, steep hills, deeply kept secrets, a stark contrast between wealth and poverty, a partially abandoned brewery, an amazing bridge, abandoned railroads, and an excellent tunnel.
For more than a century, Swede Hollow was a slum that the rest of the city chose to ignore. It lacked city water and electricity and was home to waves of poor immigrant families. Throughout that time, Drewry Tunnel was its main access point.
The small tunnel turns in the middle and climbs steeply uphill. It’s size and shape evoke a medieval European city. Descending through it from Payne Avenue feels like a trip back in time as the city is immediately replaced by the quiet of the Hollow.
If you visit the Drewry tunnel, be sure to also see the Seventh Street Improvement Arches just a short distance to the south. Although they feel like a tunnel when you pass under them, they are technically a very rare example of a helicoidal spiral stone-arch viaduct.
The Linden Hills Streetcar Tunnel
Near the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis, there’s a quaint little pedestrian tunnel under the Como-Harriet Streetcar line. Its function seems to be to provide a charming landscape feature more than simply improving access across a low frequency streetcar line.
The Ford Plant Sand Tunnels
The most remarkable tunnels in Saint Paul are the four miles of sand tunnels 100 feet beneath the Ford Plant site. The idea of Henry Ford himself, the tunnels were a sand mine for the plant’s glass factory. The tunnels grew from 1926 to 1959, turning sandstone into windshields for thousands of cars.
The tunnels also connected to the riverbank, where finished cars were lowered down an elevator to be loaded onto river barges. Twin entrances were just upstream of the steam plant. Although the steam plant still stands, the tunnel entrances have been completely buried and no evidence of them remains.
The redevelopment of the Ford site is progressing, but there’s been little mention of what remains of these tunnels. Presumably they’ve been completely sealed or filled with sand and will never be seen again. For decades, they held legendary status among urban explorers, some of whom went so far as to trespass into the assembly plant to descend a rusty ladder down into the tunnels.
There’s also been little mention of what will happen to the riverfront Ford property between the dam and Hidden Falls Park. The area is strikingly beautiful, but contains the abandoned steam plant and a toxic waste dump site of unknown magnitude called Area C. How or when the area will be redeveloped seems to be up in the air.
The Tunnel of Terror
Ford also dug sand tunnels in Crosby Farm, across from the Watergate Marina. About a mile and a half long, the tunnel cut into the sandstone bluffs in an inverted V shape, wide enough for two trucks to pass and taller than a telephone pole. Mining apparently ended in the 1940s, after which the tunnels were briefly used to store boats, which unfortunately became furry with mold.
Beginning in 1982, the Saint Paul Jaycees used the tunnels every fall for their Tunnel of Terror fundraiser, a truly epic haunted house with real live bats that flew out of the tunnel at dusk. The Tunnel of Terror was a Saint Paul tradition until 2004, when the fire department noted what a terrible idea it was to invite hundreds of people into an enclosed space with only a single exit. Not wanting to completely miss out, I took my 8 year old daughter through during the tunnel’s final season and can affirm that it was indeed a terrifyingly unique event.
The tunnel has since been sealed with concrete but illegal incursions have been an ongoing problem. The fire department recently issued a warning against entering the tunnel after 30 teens had to be rescued from it in March. They correctly note that sealed tunnels can be deadly and that cell phones don’t work underground.
For more information, cast your pale blue eyes on Greg Brick’s chapter titled The Velvet Underground.
The Elmer Anderson Library
Tucked beneath the east bank of the the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis is the state’s most unique library, two 600 foot tunnels carved into sandstone that house millions of books. Built in the early 1990s, the tunnel provides ideal storage conditions for the the rarest volumes of the University’s archives.
Like the Ford sand tunnels, the library has taken advantage of the geology of the upper Mississippi river valley, which has soft sandstone layered underneath a roof of hard limestone. In addition to storing books, similar tunnels in Saint Paul’s westside bluffs have been used to grow mushrooms or make blue cheese. Someday perhaps we may choose to use this geology to build a sandstone-level subway system throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
Modern Pedestrian Tunnels
The past decade or so has seen a local renaissance in tunnel building for pedestrian and bicycle trails. Lexington Avenue in Saint Paul now has a tunnel enabling access to Como Park from the Midway, Minneapolis now has a connection under 35W between the Dinkytown Greenway and downtown, and the Samuel H Morgan trail along the east bank of the Mississippi has a bypass under 35E that avoids the freeway interchange. All of these have greatly improved the safety and efficiency of Twin Cities bikeways.
But then there’s the Maryland Avenue tunnel on the Gateway Trail, an otherwise excellent state trail connecting Saint Paul to Stillwater. Built in 2012, the Maryland tunnel was supposed to provide the final Gateway connection between the Eastside and downtown. Instead, because of land acquisition and other complicating issues, the trail through the tunnel has yet to be completed and the tunnel has been languishing for eight years. The Gateway Trail advocacy group reports that these issues may be nearing resolution and trail construction may begin as early as next year. But no one seems to be holding their breath. The whole situation is an example of bad planning and implementation which highlights how bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure often takes a back seat to car-centered projects.
The Rabbit Hole
It may not look like it from on top, but Kellogg Boulevard from RiverCentre to city hall in downtown Saint Paul is basically one long 80 year old bridge cantilevered over the river bluffs. And, in the middle of it is the Rabbit Hole, a tunnel extension of Exchange Street that pops up into the middle of Kellogg right outside the Science Museum.
Like all good things in Saint Paul, the Rabbit Hole was designed as a shortcut, in this case to relieve traffic at Seven Corners. Now, it’s a shortcut to Shepard Road and 35E.
Pedestrians aren’t allowed, but if you bike down the Rabbit Hole, you’ll see just how decrepit the structure under Kellogg has become since it was built in the 1930s.
Battle Creek & Fish Hatchery Trail Tunnel
One of the finest bicycle rides in the Twin Cities is to descend through Battle Creek Park from Upper Afton Road, crossing the creek repeatedly, then going through the unremarkable and somewhat decrepit tunnel under Highway 61 and continuing on Fish Hatchery Trail. The Battle Creek ride is exhilarating, but what makes the 1.4 mile long Fish Hatchery trail so great is its surreal remoteness and the roller coaster feel of its heaved and buckled pavement (plus a brief stretch of gravel!). Taking it at speed feels bracingly out of control on a road bike. Taking it slow offers a chance to explore an urban woods that few residents of Saint Paul have ever seen.
Some of the best biking trails in the Twin Cities, at least in my opinion, are in wooded ares, near lakes or rivers, are quiet and peaceful, and allow you to observe wildlife. And to have such bike trails within a couple of miles from downtown St Paul is something quite special. —Melissa Wenzel
We have Eastside bicycle advocate Melissa Wenzel to thank for urging the city and state to reopen the trail, which was closed for three years due to erosion. Even now, when so many people are rediscovering hiking and bicycling as ideal social distancing activities, Fish Hatchery remains quiet and uncrowded.
The Northeast Yacht Club
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the NE Yacht club, which does not in fact involve yachts but has a bona fide prohibition era smuggling tunnel, as the intrepid Bill Lindeke deftly reports. Certainly worth a visit!
Except as noted, all photos were taken by the author, mostly for Bike Tag.