Subterranean Homesick Blues

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

"You'd expect nothing to be left. But there were no rules about removing all vestiges of human habitation when they demolished buildings like there are now. Things just got filled in and filled over. It's like some places in the Middle East--cities built on cities built on cities."

Clouse stopped beneath a crumbling wall with small, dark windows that seemed to open up from the riverbank. "Let's see if there's anybody living here today," he said. Water from the previous night's rain was dripping down the side of the wall and pooling in a gasoline-colored puddle at the bottom. The grotto was strewn with plastic vodka bottles, half-rotten scraps of clothing, and all the other sorts of detritus that go hand in hand with regular human habitation. Behind some brush and hidden from view from the bridge above, there was an opening just wide enough for one person to squeeze through. Behind that, there was a cave that extended about ten feet into the dark and was piled with an even greater assortment of refuse. Clouse explained that people were usually living in it and the nearby storm drains. He poked his head into the opening and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. An awful, hot smell came from inside. At the rear of the burrow, nearly buried in old bottles, was an oblong form wrapped in a ratty sleeping bag. It may have been someone's stash of winter clothing or it may have been a body.

Clouse decided not to investigate. "Looks like someone's sleeping," he whispered and stepped back out into the light.

 

When Clouse began his excavation in 1983, he shared the site with a regular cast of homeless people. As the city grew up around it, the derelict riverfront became one of the last urban refuges for railroad tramps. The abandoned mills were a regular shelter; at one time, as many as 100 people lived in the Washburn Crosby complex. It was pitch-dark inside and there was no plumbing, but the temperature stayed a constant 56 degrees inside the limestone shells, and was thus more agreeable than an outdoor camp in January. The inhabitants stripped the walls for copper wiring, but some also carted in furniture and decorated their corners of the place. Flour dust was still settling in the air, though, and cooking fires periodically set the buildings ablaze.

Finally, after a rape and homicide near the grounds a few years ago, the city closed off the crumbling outbuildings. The people who'd been living inside scattered into smaller camps along the river. A few found refuge in this little cave by the edge of the Mississippi. Pat Wood, a street worker with People Incorporated, remembers these people only vaguely. "They were Caucasian guys and they drank a lot. They slept in the cave at night. No one down there was an angel, but they were a resilient bunch."

One man, who goes by the name Viking but whose real name is Melvin, has been living in the cave for three and a half years. He stayed in the one of the Washburn Crosby storage buildings before it was demolished and carries in his back pocket a faded color photograph of the old mill and a girl named West Bank Mary who used to live there with him on occasion.

"There was four people in there," he said. "Me and Pete and Lisa and Linda. You have to go underground to get inside, through the tunnels. And it was pitch-black. There was a spiral staircase up to the sleeping rooms. Windows was far and few between in there."

Viking stripped off his socks as he talked and began rubbing his feet, which were raw and red. His camouflage shirt was hanging open over a round, pale belly, and his long and tangled hair was pulled back behind a red bandanna. He is a regular in the area and spends his days sitting outside the entrance to his den, in the deepest part of the grotto where the water collects after rainstorms in a greasy pool. He often has visitors. One of the common callers is Dave, a younger man with a shock of dark blond hair who lives underground in one of the old mill tailraces about a mile down river. The two sit on rickety white folding chairs in front of the mouth of the grotto, hidden from view by a wall of scrub growth, and talk about things.

Together, they have an encyclopedic, if unofficial, record of the area's underground history. "Back in the 1700s," Viking said, "There was two bridges here and an old logging camp right by the river. There was houses down by the water. They built that Stone Arch Bridge in 1873. Now they're trying to tear all this up. Gotta find a new place to stay pretty soon.

"Anyhoot, I lived in the mill. It was me and Pete and Linda and Lisa. They killed Kenny. They tried to beat me up, but I had a bowie knife. They goddanged raped Lisa and Linda, and beat the heck out of Keith and Pete. I've been down here three years and I'm doing all right. That's why I'm still down here."

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