Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech

How an exploration dispute between academic Greg Brick and Action Squad's Gabe Carlson became a vicious legal battle

Urban cavers fight over turf and free speech
Mike Kooiman

Greg Brick's home is a museum of subterranean artifacts. A collection of maps and filing cabinets decorates the living room, along with so many stacks of books that he recently had to install an extra support beam in the basement to keep the floor from buckling.

Brick, a 50-year-old with red hair and wearing a heavy plaid shirt, produces a manilla folder and begins rifling through the papers inside, landing on a wrinkled map pocked with dirt spots and scribbled annotations.

"It gives you a good idea of the length of the passages," says Brick, a geology research assistant and doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota, as he places it on a coffee table.

The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
The Action Squad atop Abbot Surgical Hospital, overlooking the city.
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.
courtesy of Gabe Carlson/Action Squad
Carlson, a.k.a. Max Action, on a trip the Ford mines.

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The map depicts sand mines underneath the recently closed Ford Auto Plant. Built in the 1920s, the caverns run for miles beneath the factory and the surrounding area in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. Ford miners used the tunnels for decades to extract the silica needed to make glass at the plant.

Since the mining stopped in the mid-20th century, the tunnels have been an alluring draw, but they are kept under close watch by security guards and surveillance cameras. Attempting access is treacherous, and explorers tell stories of those who have tried and failed.

But in 2000, Brick sneaked in and used this map to navigate through the tunnels, he says. He describes the trip in his 2009 book, Subterranean Twin Cities, including how he narrowly escaped after finding a security guard awaiting him in a truck outside the mines, apparently asleep at the wheel.

"There was a guy leaning back in his seat," Brick says. "And that truck was not there when we came in, and it just scared the bejesus out of us. So we just ran off into the woods."

On this winter morning, the map is more than just a nostalgic artifact from an old adventure. It's likely to be submitted as evidence in a complicated libel case against a fellow urban explorer named Gabe Carlson, who runs a popular website called the Action Squad.

At the core of the lawsuit is a vicious rivalry more than a decade in the making, and an accusation that Brick vehemently disputes — that he stole the Ford mines story from the Action Squad.

"This whole thing is just a tempest in a tea cup," says Brick. "But he wants to make the Ford mines like a subterranean Waterloo for me, and try to ruin me with it."


The Twin Cities was seemingly designed for urban exploration. The earth deep below Minneapolis and St. Paul is mostly sandstone, a material ripe for excavation, which has left a vast network of underground catacombs. There are also steam tunnels that run for miles under the University of Minnesota campus, and the ruins of mills and factories.

"There are countless tunnels in St. Paul, and caves and crazy tangled labyrinths," says Mark Vollath, who has been exploring the cities since 2004. "People have compared it to Paris's catacombs."

Brick's interest in urban exploration began in the early 1980s when he was studying biology at the U of M. On a trip to London, he noticed a drainage pipe dumping water into a pond in Hyde Park, but no stream carried the water back out. He found himself mesmerized and became curious about what went on in the underground parts of cities.

After finishing his biology degree, Brick decided to go for a second major in geology. He began exploring natural caves like Mystery and Niagara in southeastern Minnesota, but eventually turned his focus to the urban underground.

Urban exploration often involves illegal trespass, but Brick says scientific discovery — not danger — has always been the draw.

"I always would think that my time had been wasted if I went into a cave or a tunnel and I didn't come back with some sort of geological or historical insight," he says.

Brick left Minneapolis to pursue his master's in geology in the mid-'90s at the University of Connecticut, then spent time in St. Louis, and returned home a few years later to work for an environmental consulting firm. He continued exploring, chronicling his trips in academic articles. He had a series in the Ramsey County History periodical investigating places like Fountain Cave and Cascade Creek in St. Paul.

Among his most popular articles was a piece in a magazine called NSS News about Chutes Cave in Minneapolis. No one had documented entering Chutes in decades at the time, and some thought it was a myth before Brick wrote about it.

Through his scientific approach to urban exploration, Brick built a reputation as an esteemed explorer and researcher among the geology community, says Dave Gerboth, board member of the Minnesota Speleological Survey.

"I see Greg as unique," says Gerboth. "He's taken that scholarly approach, and I don't think there's anybody else doing that."

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Brick had the caves and tunnels mostly to himself, he says. But around the mid- to late '90s, that began to change. He noticed more and more people getting into the scene. On the emerging internet, websites dedicated to exploring began appearing — some, he thought, gave away too much information about the locations of hidden cave entrances. Once-pristine caves like Chutes were suddenly littered with empty bottles of Jack Daniels and other trash. He wasn't alone anymore.

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12 comments
billwebster1963
billwebster1963

I was the Ford Employee who bought this to Ford  Managements attention.

The rabbit in the tunnel was left there as a joke when Paul Morarity  retired in 1996. Paul was the Maintenance man in the steam plant when he retired. When I sent this website to my boss he put it on the Security Managers computer just to mess with him. He didn't know that Ford Corp. was conducting a security review at that time. It ended up being a bad time to be in management at Ford TCAP. Max you made life interesting for us, Thanks and the security officer that wrote you was Bob  R.  and yes they used to sleep down by the steam plant

Max, I would like to talk to you

Bill



MaxActionSquadMPLS
MaxActionSquadMPLS

While this thankfully wasn't an outright smear-job like the 2001 CP article was, it nonetheless contained several inaccuracies, didn't include a link to the page the lawsuit is all about (http://www.actionsquad.org/Greg-Brick-Subterranean-Twin-Cities.htm), and did quite a remarkably poor job explaining my side of this situation.

So I thought I would post a comment containing a simple list of reasons that we do not believe that the same thing really happened to Greg, as he claims. 

  • the written witness account from Brick's friend (who was with him the night that they accessed the mines, using the entrance we'd found & shared) labelled Greg's Ford Mines story as "inaccurate" - and revealed that the vehicle Greg saw was "several hundred yards away" from the mine exit.  (Brick wrote that it was "smack across" from them, upon exiting the mine  - as it was in the Action Squad story).

  • in Brick's (since deleted) response to my Amazon book review, he claimed that Ford security "always" parked their vehicles across from the mine entrance - and that this proves that I am "unfamiliar with the mines." (ha) 

  • also in that review, Brick made the bizarre claim that he knows that security guards commonly slept there / parked their trucks there - because a friend of his monitored Ford security's radio conversations. (?!?)

  • yet, in dozens and dozens of explorations by dozens of other local explorers, no one else EVER saw a guard sleeping there upon approach or exit, or even saw a truck parked anywhere near the mine entrance. And of course, not one other person or group was either busted or almost busted coming from the mines.

  • Brick was clearly well-aware of the Action Squad site's Ford story (he actually referred to it in the same paragraph, and must have written that passage of his book with the incredible similarity to the story in mind) - yet the alleged surprising coincidence had never came up before the book was published, in ~10 years.

  • witness accounts from Greg's friend (and his friend's wife - both of whom were with him the night he went into the Ford Mines after they learned of the entrance we'd found) do not include ANY mention of a sleeping guard, or even any mention of Brick reporting having seen one at the time - although this seems likely to have been a highly memorable aspect of the event (particularly in light of the well-known story on the Action Squad site)

I know well - better than most, perhaps - that crazy coincidences can and do happen.

However, for the reasons above (in addition to the way Greg has since behaved, and how he seems so clearly motivated by SPITE in his dealings with other explorers), I continue to believe that Greg inserted the sleeping guard story in his book - likely in an effort to anger me in a way he thought I would be impotent to do anything about.

It's been a pain in the butt dealing with the legal threats and intimidation, and I'll be happy to see it all finally go away with the upcoming settlement - but I don't regret it, and I still stand by everything I've written. 

Max Action

relux
relux

I see comments are being deleted from this article. Is Greg Brick also convincing the City Pages to squash free speech now too? Incredible. 

Squeamish
Squeamish

From the 2001 article, linked below by Relux:  "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.""

Later, in the same article:   "[Brick's] just very into the historical thing, and he almost scorns the idea of being into this for any thrills or adrenaline, which is important to most of us," Max says. "I like risk. I like getting into places at night where I'm not supposed to be."

 ..."To me, that's just a nuisance," Brick counters. "The difference is between people who come from a caving background and people who come from a trespassing background. A lot of cave work is boring. You do a prospecting trip, then you come back and you do some digging. You know, that's boring to a lot of these point-and-click kids. They're not willing to put in the back-breaking effort."

 --So who here is coming from a caving background?  Not to mention, I have been part of the Twin Cities urban exploring community for many years and I can attest that there are many explorers who will spend countless days of hard work (e. g. digging) to get into a new location.  Like it or not, Greg, we're not point-and-click kids.

lucid
lucid

Great article, with lots of implications for free speech and censorship!

Seems to me that it's amazingly hypocritical that Mr. Brick goes out of his way to complain about websites revealing the caves in his book that's written with the soul purpose of revealing the caves. Someone needs to get off their soapbox.

relux
relux

After reading this article and specifically the part about this lock that Brick admitted to placing, I have a few thoughts. Strangely, the 2001 article that is mentioned is not linked (http://www.citypages.com/2001-10-17/news/notes-from-underground/). 

City Pages 10/17/2001
GREG BRICK: "I don't know if it's selfishness or whatever. Maybe I just want the cave to myself," he says. "And it's not the only time it's happened. I guess I just like having my own little keys to the underworld. I know it's not mine. It's not my cave or my sewer tunnel to lock off, but I do it anyway. Isn't that bizarre?"

City pages 03/06/2013
GREG BRICK: "Brick says his intentions were misinterpreted. The gated entrance leads to part of the cave where bats hibernate during the winter, and he was afraid that if too many people had access, the animals would be disturbed or killed."

--
I guess I am confused here as to what was misinterpreted. In 2001, he offered that maybe he locked it because of selfishness "or whatever". But really, he said he just maybe wanted the cave to himself. Then he said it's actually because he wanted to "have his own little key to the underground". 

He then went on further to say he knows its not his cave or sewer tunnel to lock off, but he does it anyways. However, previously in the same City Pages article, he says "The difference is between people who come from a caving background and people who come from a trespassing background." So who here is coming from a caving background? 

Now, after 11 years he graciously offers us a 4th reason he locked the gate. Naturally, this one falls more in line with the image he is trying to rewrite for himself. Yeah, dude. I'm sure. You were thinking of the bats. 

To answer Greg's own question of "Isn't it bizarre?". Why, yes, Greg. It is bizarre. You can't reshape history. 

ManikawG
ManikawG

"This has been a pure and simple nightmare for Greg".

Yeah, that's what happens when you try and suppress free speech. Imagine the nightmares people have in Myanmar. 

Markus.Amberson
Markus.Amberson

Well written and fascinating story. Like many others who read this, I had no idea such stuff existed and never heard of "Action Squad". From all accounts, Greg Brick appears to come across as a professional but the article never mentions what he does for a living. Certainly at age 50, there would be some type of career involved here. Is he just an assistant to a researcher? 

Looking at the Action Squad website it looks like it hasn't been updated in ages. Why does Greg even care about Action Squad? Is this group that important that he feels they have the power to undermine his writings? It seems to me that Action Squad are a bunch of kids that are doing what kids do. Explore their city. It happens everywhere. People say mean things about people all the time.

I don't know I could come up with another case of someone as old as this dude fighting a bunch of kids over something they said on the internet. What a waste of time.

EmilyErikson71
EmilyErikson71

This greg brick is a doctoral candidate? He reminds me of the senior in high school that would always pick fights with the cooler more hip freshman. Except this guy is 50 years old. Sad sad state of affairs. Get a life.

olso6311
olso6311

@Markus.Amberson Brick is a geologist and historian, as well as a caver.  I purchased the book awhile back and it is both well-written and informative, but he has handled this situation poorly.  He's tried to take UE into a professional thing, blaming the 'no-good punk pipe rats' (i.e. action squad) who have done nothing wrong, never once directly revealing a location on the site.

And the site has been defunct for awhile as the group has dwindled in size and I think Max just doesn't want to be web-master anymore.  Both parties are well informed, and in a sense, well intentioned, Brick is just being a little immature about this, as he DID steal the Ford story from Action Squad.

dennislang07
dennislang07

Fascinating story beautifully covered by the author. Yes, it's about people who explore caves afterall but does have far wider 1st Amendment implications. Of especial interest is the role of attorney Anfinson. To my knowledge no more vigorous advocate of free speech anywhere now on the other side of the table. If this case went all the way would be truly intriguing to see how it's decided. One of the great virtues of the internet is as  platform to share information, also one of its potentially devious detriments--no guarantees that information is credible.. Nice article!

 
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