Notes From Underground

Greg Brick explores the sewers and caves that lie beneath the Twin Cities. Sometimes what he finds is beautiful. Sometimes it's just gross.

Brick decided he would try to emulate the adventure. After going down the same manhole three weeks later, however, Brick and his longtime sewering companion John were alarmed to see that NMT's flow had increased. "I just started feeling so fucking weird," Brick remembers. "Then John looked at me, and he said, 'Let's get out of here.' He said it. But I probably would have if he hadn't. We just hightailed out of there." It was a bitter setback. "I just steamed about it all winter," Brick says now. "It was like I'd been shown up by some greenhorn."

In May of 2000, Brick, still determined to find an alternate route, located a breach in the wall of one of downtown's deep storm sewers. Climbing through the hole, he discovered an access point to a stretch of the NMT that was in close proximity to Schiek's Cave and downstream from the turbulent rapids where Sand had entered. Fearful of contracting a case of Tunnel Fever, he and John donned respirators and rubber waders before entering the waist-deep sewage, then carefully crept to a shaft that eventually led to the cave.

After poking around the cave, Brick was surprised to find the floor of the cavern littered with soda straws and feminine hygiene products. Apparently, a sewer line from Schiek's Palace Royale had ruptured. Brick also began to develop a theory about the cave's origins, which has long been the subject of debate. After examining assorted features, he concluded that it was neither manmade nor natural, but anthropogenic, meaning it was created as an unintended consequence of human activity. Specifically, Brick surmised, the excavation of the NMT in the late 19th Century had changed the groundwater flow, which would soften and ultimately erode the sandstone, creating the cave. Brick hoped further explorations might reveal the presence of other anthropogenic spaces nearby. But his "easy" access to Schiek's proved short-lived. Not long after he and John videotaped a second visit, the city's Public Works crews bricked up the sewer-wall hole that Brick had passed through to gain access to the NMT.

Tony Nelson

When I first hook up with Brick and John, they are looking for a new opening to the NMT. After inspecting the concrete overflow platform, Brick decides we should travel further up the deep storm sewer. Eventually we head south, traveling beneath Nicollet Mall. As we trudge through the water, the tunnel seems to shrink, owing to an accumulation of sediment on the floor. Soon, we are hunchbacked. It is uncomfortable, especially for Brick, who recently sprained his ankle in a caving accident. Here and there, he pauses to examine some subtle change in what, to him, is a familiar landscape. A small access panel on the side of the tunnel arouses his curiosity. "Maybe I'd fit through, but not fit back," he jokes. "They say you swell up when you get panicked."

At the corner of Seventh and Nicollet, where the intersection is marked with a brass plaque for the convenience of sewer workers, I notice a sudden change in conditions. The air and water have become noticeably warmer. It smells. My glasses fog up. Suddenly, roaches are scrambling helter-skelter. We are in sewage.

For Brick, this is a good sign: a break in the sanitary tunnel could mean a new cave is forming in the sandstone. He takes out his clipboard and makes a notation. Something to check out on another excursion. Something to add to the research. After reaching 12th and Nicollet, we retrace our steps and emerge back on the banks of the Mississippi River. We have been exploring for four hours. The afternoon sun is impossibly bright, a bath irresistibly tempting.


Over the past decade, Brick has published scads of papers in various historical and speleological journals, including "Sanitary Abyss: The Schiek's Cave Adventure," "Lonely Quest: The Exploration of the Fort Road Labyrinth," and "The Skeptical Caver, or Six Years at Chute's Cave." The Schiek's article begins with a sly quote from Goethe's Faust: "Take counsel, cherish not the sun and stars. Come, follow me down into the realm of gloom." His pieces are also laced with linguistic flourishes. In a short piece about the Banholzer Brewery Cave in St. Paul, Brick describes a notable aperture in the cave wall as "a vulviform erosional modification of a vertical joint"--a more discreet variation, he explains later, of "pussy hole," the slang term some cavers use to describe the landmark. The playful tone notwithstanding, Brick's articles are meticulously detailed. "Greg is a very serious researcher, and, from my perspective, one of the most valuable things he does is put things down in writing," observes Calvin Alexander, who was one of Brick's professors at the U of M.

Among members of the Minnesota Speleological Survey, Brick's inner-city exploits are regarded with a mixture of awe and revulsion. When Brick presented a video and lecture on a trip to Schiek's Cave at a meeting of the MSS, his fellow cavers were dumbfounded. "There was admiration for the success. There was amazement," Alexander says. "And there was a lot of, 'No way in hell would I do that.'" Dave Gerboth, another veteran caver, is one of the MSS members who has been willing to accompany Brick in his urban explorations. Once, Gerboth remembers, Brick took him on a five-mile tour through St. Paul's storm sewers. Another time, he led him to a cave under the old Landmark Brewery that required "quite a lot of sanitary." "That was a little bit too much for me. I don't think I want to do that kind of trip again," Gerboth says. "He has a tolerance for pain that I don't have."

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