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.

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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