the Labyrinth

I read the newspaper every day. Well, I read the main section, the Metro/State section, and the Variety section, anyway. Fuck Sports. Anyway, the local news is an excellent source for places to explore: there are always blurbs on some historical landmark being slated for demolition, or on plans to renovate some presently abandoned institution. So, one day I was reading an article about the construction of the Xcel Energy Center in downtown Saint Paul, when I found a gem amidst the crap; a mention of how "the project was nearly disrupted by the discovery of a labyrinth of abandoned sewer and utility tunnels."

At the time, I did not think too much about it, but I did clip it and stick in on my desk for later research. It circulated through the heaps and piles for months, and eventually resurfaced and caught my eye while I was online. By this time, I'd done much more exploring in the Saint Paul area, and was much more aware of the other Twin City's potential for underground adventuring.

I shuffled through the internet for awhile, trying out different combinations of keywords and following links to mostly useless information. The little I was able to dredge up, however, intrigued me mightily. I found several minor references to mazes of utility tunnels beneath the city, and one great article titled "Tunnels Make New Wild Arena Project Wilder."

My interest in these tunnels skyrocketed when I read this passage:

"The tunnel story starts in downtown St. Paul in the 1840s, when the city began to carve a network of utility tunnels into its underlying sandstone bedrock. These subterranean structures usually followed the streets above, and offshoots or drifts extended to the buildings along the streets. As time went on, this system grew to be a complicated maze with more and more drifts constructed in order to service buildings. Tunnels are present under most of the downtown area, are often many stories deep, come in all sizes, and are in various states of repair."

And that was all I was able to find out. Somewhere under downtown Saint Paul, there were a whole bunch of tunnels. But how to get into them, or what specific streets to look near, or anything similarly useful was lacking.

An old local explorer who had been in a few of the utility tunnel systems in the 80's told us about his old entrance: a door under the Wabasha Street Bridge, which had usually been locked up with chains. Well, a bit of checking turned up that the whole bridge had been rebuilt in 1998; where the old entrance door had been there was now only an unbroken cement wall.

That was fine with me, actually … I like it better when there is a thrill of the hunt to be had. Really, how boring would it be if beforehand we knew how to access places and what we would find there? We'd be robbed of the profound satisfaction and amazing thrill of victory that comes with gaining access to forbidden places, the "holy shit! Holy SHIT!" rush of excitement that the discovery of wholly unexpected territory brings.

Of course, in this case there was a chance that we'd never succeed in gaining access, since the route used by explorers of previous decades was newly buried behind a layer of cement several feet thick (and in plain sight right next to the new County Jail's parking lot for employees, no less). But come on. We're Action Squad. How long could an extensive tunnel system hope to hide from us?

We made two attempts early on. First Agent Wop, Sherpa and I wound up finding a short segment of power tunnel that ran into the bluff along Shepherd Road but then dead-ended. The next trip, Agent Wop, Hound and I just wandered around looking for openable things in the ground. It might sound hokey, but this is a surprisingly successful way of finding places. We got into some drains, got into some fiber optic vaults, and got behind a small bluff retaining wall, and, after a while, we also got good and bored. We wound up sidetracked and on the wrong side of town, planning on how we could climb the scaffolding to the top of the Saint Paul Cathedral's dome, which was being re-coppered at the time.

Time passed, and spring became summer. I was at a punk show. A pretty big punk show: the German punk band Oxymoron (the guys with the mohawks pictured on the main Labyrinth page) was headlining an impressive line-up, including the Casualties, the Forgotten, and the Boils - who're one of my favorite punk bands.

I was drunk as hell, and must confess that I was maintaining my state by picking up random drinks left in the bar area and slamming them down before their owners returned. What can I say, I was broke! And, I'm a scumbag.

I wound up at a table with Jimmy (not to be confused with Action Squad's "Slim Jim"), a local punk who has been around the scene since the early 1980s. He's a big bald guy, covered in tattoos, with a shaved head, a studded coat, and a friendly personality at odds with his intimidating visage. Agent Wop brought up Action Squad, and I mentioned how we were currently trying to find a way into some rumored utility tunnels under Saint Paul. Jimmy then recounted finding a tunnel about 15 years earlier … a tunnel beneath downtown Saint Paul. I realized from his description that this was likely one of the utility tunnels that we'd been seeking, and asked him for details. Shouting over the noise of the bar and the punk band rocking out in the next room, Jimmy said:

"Yeah, we were drunk as shit, walking around after bar close. And we see this opening in the ground, over by (location censored), with road cones around it. So we go into it, and we go down this ladder for like a hundred feet, into this weird tunnel. We don't have a flashlight, of course, but we've got my Zippo lighter. We check this thing out for at least an hour, it must have been, with just this lighter that kept going out to see by. Then the lighter goes out for good, and we had to feel our way back out again in the dark, drunk out of our skulls. It took forever, but we got out OK. Next time I saw it, though, it wasn't open anymore."

So now we had the 15 year-old hazy recollection of a drunken discovery to guide us. He couldn't recall where this access point had been, only that it had been near a certain place, and that it had been in the road. He told me he might be free to come look for it with us in a week or two, and gave me his number.

The next morning, I woke up with more than a hangover and clothing that reeked of smoke. I woke up with the knowlege that I could not wait a week or two to go look for an entrance to the utility tunnels. No way. I had plans with a female friend ("Muse") that night. I called her, convinced her it would be a ton o' fun to come scouting with me. I called up Dag Jefferson, and he was game.

Muse picked me up just after nightfall. On the way to pick up Dag, I had her swing by a construction site and pick up some road cones. I brought along my construction worker costume, complete with reflective orange vest; if we found a promising manhole in the street we'd in theory be able to gain access without getting killed, arrested, or causing someone poor motorist to break an axle.

We parked near the location Jimmy had mentioned, and started working outward in concentric circles, noting possible entrances. We found some promising-looking manholes, but they were bolted down and on the side of a very busy street. We went off to find easier possibilities, but knew we'd be back if nothing else panned out.

After almost an hour of walking, probing, and prying, I saw the way in. I just knew it was it. I felt it in my flippin' marrow …the signs all pointed to this being the access point we needed. We took the necessary precautions, and then figured out how to gain access (yes, I'm being annoyingly vague: we're not in the business of publicizing access points). Minutes later, my belief was confirmed, as we descended into the earth, and found ourselves in an amazing tunnel.

I was in my warped idea of heaven; the Labyrinth had been a dream for years, and we'd made it! Damn, it's frickin' great when the thrills of victory, discovery, fear, and anticipation coincide at moments like that.

And the tunnel system was insanely extensive, and the places to explore seemed endless. And it just kept getting better … the next night we returned, and were amazed to discover a whole new tunnel system above the first. Within an hour of exploring that system, we'd found another connection to yet another completely distinct tunnel system.

It was then that I knew that Action Squad had found something we'd be exploring for a long, long time to come.