Subterranean Homesick Blues

An archaeologist, two bottles of whiskey, and the cavemen of the Mississippi: Digging for the city beneath the city

On a warm and windy summer morning, there is no better place to stand for a few minutes than the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge, where the Mississippi gurgles in a brown flood over the only waterfall between here and the Gulf of Mexico, and where the smokestacks of the east bank poke up into the sky. It's a good place for cloud watching, and if the morning is clear and bright and not too hot, there will be people jogging or walking or just standing along the edge of the water. The riverbank is sandy and grown over with crabgrass, milkweed, and wiry wasteland scrub trees. Here and there, crumbling bits of limestone wall jut out of the undergrowth. They are the old foundations of the great milling district that once ran down what is now First Street between Portland and Chicago. From the middle of the 19th Century until the onset of the Great Depression, the streets here were crowded with giant textile and flour mills with names like Zenith, Occidental, and King Midas. When the district went into decline, the old mills burned and were not rebuilt, or were demolished and buried by the Army Corps of Engineers beneath strata of gravel and dirt. The city grew up, and the ruins were forgotten and left to disintegrate under the riverbank.

An archaeologist named Robert Clouse, from the Minnesota Historical Society, has a particular affinity for this sandy patch of ground. He has spent the better part of a decade exhuming its industrial remains for the city's Mill Ruins historical park, the centerpiece of a planned upscale residential district that will eventually supplant the tumble-down factories and mills along the riverfront. Clouse is a trim and tanned man who generally looks as much like an archaeologist as one can without a fedora, and who speaks about his work with a historian's reverence for what was. He has been working for the Historical Society for 22 years and has been an adjunct professor at the University for nearly as long, but he says that he still feels like a kid when he is digging around near the river. He holds that "a picture is worth several thousand words," and, to that end, carries a book full of grainy black-and-white photos of the old mills. "I always bring my books to find the answers so I don't clutter my brain with details."

Nevertheless, Clouse has a mind for details, and in a few minutes of conversation can do more to evoke the old milling district than many books' worth of photographs. "These mills were exploding all the time because the flour dust in the air was so flammable," he explained as he negotiated his way down the bank. "Some of the fire hydrants along First Street there are the originals. The city waterworks were just upriver." He pointed toward the renovated mill that is now the Whitney Hotel. "The Basset Mill was up there, and the Occidental Mill was where the Fuji-Ya restaurant used to be. The basement of the restaurant was actually part of the old mill. It's gone now, but it used to be right up that direction.

"The gatehouse was up there, too. It controlled the flow of water to all the mills and the water came down the old headrace, which ran where--not exactly where--First Street is. There was a wooden street above the water, and on top of that, there were railroad tracks for bringing the grain in and taking the flour out. It's the scale of the place. Details you can't get out of a book or exhibit. It's the texture and scale."

Clouse came to a stop near a bent and rusted railroad spur that stuck like a bleached bone out of the sandy bank. "We started testing in '89 for the Park Board to see how far down it went and what was left. We found this buried beneath 15 feet of soil. When they buried it they just cut off the top with a torch and left it. The track ran behind the mills, so we knew exactly where the tailrace would be and what the original street level was." He pointed out a riveted crossbeam twisted between two vertical posts. "See how the lines run crisscross. It's all hand-riveted, the way they used to build bridges. It's the details."

There was a bit of wall sticking out of the bank a few yards from the spur. "The mills are still underneath there. There's miles of tunnels and basements still buried. This one's in good condition. It's got this arched opening all filled with dirt. I was alone when I found it and I went sliding down this dirt pile and into the mill subbasement. I couldn't believe it. The inspection walkways and the wooden planking were in perfect condition. It's like a cave--cold and damp inside--but it's all man-made and it's all buried underneath here.

"The story is all right there," he said. "You don't have to read it in a book." Clouse began walking toward the water and a limestone wall partially obscured by brush. "It's the stories of the people who worked here, see? We found an old I-beam intact from the Zenith Mill and there were two old whiskey bottles hidden behind it. You see, the guys who were working in the mills mostly came from the neighborhood, the Gateway, and a lot of them were single men and hard drinkers. Nowadays people drink and drive; back then, they'd drink while they worked. Those bottles were the story of somebody who couldn't get through the day without a couple drinks. We all know someone like that.

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