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.

"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."

Viking sleeps in the riverbank den and wanders during the day. He cooks inside and keeps a stash of clothes. "I've got a raccoon living in there. I've got a bat. The turbine of the mill, that's my chimney. That's where the bat stays during the day. Does his stuff at night. He's cool; he don't bother me. I got a badger."

"Groundhog," interrupted Dave.

"It's a badger."

"Groundhog. They look a lot alike."

"You ever even seen it?" Viking said with an emphatic slap of the belly. "It's a full-grown flabby-ass badger." The day had grown hot, and Viking had grown very drunk. He yawned and crawled back toward the mouth of the burrow.

"When are you going to open that?" Dave said and pointed at a bottle of vodka that Viking was cradling beneath his arm.

"When I get done with my nap," his companion growled. The man who called himself Viking crawled back into the hole and took the bottle with him, and Dave watched them both go. After a minute or two, he fell silent.

When I left, he was staring out down the sandy, scrub-covered riverbank and sucking thoughtfully on a cigarette. Up above the river, cranes were turning the shells of the west bank's mills into office complexes and luxury high-ceiling loft apartments. It was, as Clouse said, a city built on a city. Two whiskey bottles hidden beneath an old timber beam suddenly began to seem a very significant find. It was like knowing that men were waiting out a Minnesota summer in caves beneath the ruins of the old mills, where men who were probably much like them and whose names are now forgotten had worked their entire lives and had stashed their liquor in the rafters. From the Stone Arch Bridge, you could not see the opening in the bank without knowing where to look for it.

A woman in white Lycra shorts came trotting by, dragging a small, sad-looking dog behind her. The day was bright and warm, but it did not seem so fine anymore, and I could not say why.

 

A guided walking tour of the St. Anthony Falls milling district will be offered at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 10; (612) 627-5433. Reservations are required.

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