Minneapolis / Saint Paul / Twin Cities urban exploration

The Pillsbury Canal &
Chute's Tunnel and Cave

Pillsbury Canal

The construction of the Pillsbury Power Canal was started in 1880 and finished in 1881. Unlike the west side canal, it had an arched masonry roof over which fill was placed and then cobblestone for the street. The canal was 14 feet wide and a maximum of 15 feet deep.

In 1901 the southern tailrace was rebuilt. In 1955 the Pillsbury A discontinued the use of waterpower. The canal was blocked off and the tailraces are now used as storm sewers.

Chute's Tunnel & Cave

In 1864, S.H. Chute excavated a tunnel meant to provide a water supply for the flour mill. However, the 8-foot diameter tunnel encountered a large cave, and the project was abandoned. In 1875 a bulkhead was built across the tunnel during tailrace excavations for the Phoenix Mill. The Chute tunnel was used for tourist excursions from 1875 to 1883; the curious would pay 10 cents to be brought into the cave in a flat-bottomed boat with a torch lighting the way.

In 1881 a large portion of the cave collapsed, and took part of the street above
with it.  The remaining portion was supported with huge wooden beams. The tunnel was effectively sealed during the Pillsbury canal construction in 1881. According to Minnesota Archeology Review, "Chute's Cave still remains below Main Street
, but the entrance is no longer apparent.”
OK, so maybe an entrance is not 'apparent,' but that doesn’t mean Action Squad can’t find a way in …

MISSION LOG: 10/24/00
Members: Max Action, Texas Kidd, Fuck, & Cap

Action Squad had been aware of the entrance to the Pillsbury tunnel system for literally years, but never got around to exploring it for some reason until very recently.  Well, one contributing factor was no doubt that a lot of people are sissies and don't want to wade through a river just to muck about underground.  But we finally decided it was time to check it out, as we'd explored every nook and cranny of an extensive tunnel system next door.

     The entry consists of two gaping openings in the bluff made of stone, rotted mortar, and rotteder (yes, that is a word ... now) timbers.  The water flowing out of them was at that time just above knee level, and full of little fish.  Not far inside, the two tunnels merged into one.  We climbed up onto the boards up above the water and then scaled a rocky embankment.  At the top, a hole in a wall opened up into a noisy cavern featuring a large underground waterfall and various rusted out hulks of machinery.

There was no other way out of this space, so we backed up and out and dropped down into the water, where we found ourselves facing a very large and pissed-off looking raccoon.  He was glaring at us from the mouth of a smallish drainage tube about 10 feet away.  Whenever we shouted or hissed at him, he'd pull his head back in … and then pop his head back out a moment later looking meaner than ever.  We gave him a wide berth.

     A side passage with thigh-deep water led us to a huge rusted something or another.  We found a hole about 6 feet up one of the side walls, which we climbed into, finding ourselves in a very interesting series of poured concrete rooms, inhabited by dozens of bats.  We left them alone, and they, in turn, satisfied themselves with either ignoring us or flying around our heads in crazed circles and then vanishing.  This was also the point where we were most able to “enjoy” the result of wearing water-proof boots in water levels higher than the boot tops: they do a simply wonderful job of preventing any water from getting out.  Squishy.

     There were three possible exits from the series of rooms: the way we'd come in; an opening into the large entrance shaft, about 10 feet above the water; and, finally, a crack in the natural rock wall in the furthest room.  The crack was a narrow, twisting passage filled with jagged chunks of rock and bats.  Texas Kidd wanted to stay behind, and we didn't argue.  If the damn thing came down on us, she could get help.  Or at least tell our friends and families we were dead.  So she hung out in the rooms, with one of our three lights and one of the cameras.

     We wiggled in, one at a time, worming our way around and between the rocks that clogged the way.  There was barely enough room to move, and the bats had even less room; prevented from doing loops around our heads, they had to satisfy themselves with flying out into Texas' face every time she looked in after us. Trickling water was everywhere, and had formed some really amazing rock formations over the decades.

     I've been doing Action Squads for over 5 years, and have been way up high and way underground a million times.  I've been one step away from death more times than I can count.  But this was the first time I really felt like I might wind up dead.

The rocks we were climbing through were clearly cave-in rubble, and the crack we scraped our way through was the space the rocks had occupied before dropping from the ceiling and smashing down.  Some had not fallen all that long ago, either: many of the rock formations had clearly not formed around the large boulders that were on top of them, but rather, had been already been formed when the rocks crashed into them.

I was painfully aware that people don't normally go dragging themselves through the crack, and that if a cave-in was on the verge of taking place, the noise, heat, and vibration we created could easily bring it down on our heads and torsos and limbs. To make matters worse, the further we crawled without getting to anything other than more crack in the rock, the more I began to think it was about to simply dead-end, leaving us with the task of backing out feet first ... yikes.  Unsurprisingly, I found myself thinking a bit about life, death, and the like as I led our creeping charge deeper into the earth.  “Oh well,” I thought, “I'm going to die someday anyway … I'd rather go out kicking ass like this than drooling in some nursing home.”

     The crack continued on for about 150 feet, and while fearing death is part of what makes Action Squad fun, I'd be lying if I did not admit I was relieved to be out of it.  Plenty of time left to die before the nursing home, eh?  (Including the trip back through that fucking crack.)

We found ourselves in an amazing cave (the Chute Cave, although we didn't know it at the time).  It had once been much larger, clearly, but was mostly caved in.  There were massive timbers beams everywhere that had once helped hold up the cave roof, but now were not even having much luck supporting themselves.  The air was extremely humid, and we learned quickly to exhale sideways, as normal breathing would create an opaque cloud of condensation in your field of vision.  A tunnel led out from the cave on the side opposite of the hellcrack, about six feet high with an arched ceiling (the Chute Tunnel).  We were less than shocked to find it was home to a bunch of bats.  (Note: Until later research revealed the true name of this system, we had dubbed it “The Bat Cave.”)

     As we squelched down the tunnel, the mud got deeper and gooier and stickier.  Quite a ways down, a small, crawling-height shaft came in from the left bringing a steady flow of water.  From this point onward in the main tunnel, the water/mud got even deeper, until it got all the way up to our crotches.  It was so sticky that it seemed well within the realm of possibility that it would suck off one of my boots, even though they were lace-up combat boots.  In fact, I woke up the next morning with a bit of a limp, from yanking my leg too forcefully out of the mud at some point.   Sadly, we have no pictures of ourselves in the waist-deep mud, as the camera that we brought through the crack ran out of film right before we started down.

     Far ahead, the tunnel took a right turn, and I went ahead to scout it out.  The tunnel simply continued out of sight in that direction, and the water/mud looked to get even deeper.  Texas was still waiting for us back at the mouth of the crack with only bats for company, and we wanted to get back to her in a reasonable amount of time, before she either decided we died, got eaten by that raccoon, or just got bored and left us stranded.  We vowed to return in the spring (after letting the bats hibernate in peace all winter) and go further down the tunnel, crawl down the water shaft that intersected it, and take some better photos.

    On the way back, I was secretly glad to be the leader of the trip, since I'd be the first one clear of the deathtrap crack in the wall (bwah ha ha!).  The walk back out through the river cleaned the worst of the mud off our boots and legs, but we remained plenty filthy enough to turn Texas' car seats into a pleasant shade of rusty shit brown.

    This was one of my favorite missions ever, and I can't wait to go back.

10/24/00 PHOTOS

08/18/01 PHOTOS


MISSION LOG: 08/18/01
Members: Max Action & Maggot

Almost a year later, Action Squad returned with adequate film and batteries for our lights. The trip in was much creepier with only two people. Good photos were difficult to take, as mist rising from our bodies fogged out the flash; we learned to hold the camera at arm's length to minimize this effect. The raccoon did not make an appearance this time 'round, but his friends the bats more than made up for it by dive bombing my face repeatedly, which, to Maggot's amusement, caused me to utter involuntary exclamations every single time.

We did not make it further down Chute's Mudhole/Tunnel, as Maggot is rather short and became completely bogged down when the sticky clay reached her waist. Before leaving, however, we turned off our lights and spent at least 15 minutes sitting on a fallen, flowstone-covered pillar. With our eyes unable to focus on anything at all, we became newly aware of the amazing music of the cave. The forgotten cavern far beneath the busy city above was playing a natural symphony that only a hardy, lucky few have heard in the last century. Water dripped, ran, and danced in dozens of hidden pools and rock formations, the sound echoing off thousands of stone surfaces. The combined effect was subtle, yet breathtaking and uniquely beautiful. I cannot find the words to explain its power. The unexpected pleasure of sitting silently in the pure darkness of Chute's Cave, surrounded by the natural music of history and change, is one of my most valued urban adventuring memories.