Haunted St. Louis
History & Hauntings Along the Mississippi


THE LOST CAVES OF ST. LOUIS

While not necessarily haunted, the caves of St. Louis represent one of the most strange and mysterious elements of this fascinating city. The entire city of St. Louis is built upon a huge and complex system of natural caves. In fact, no other city on earth has as many caves beneath its streets, sidewalks and buildings. While most of them have been abandoned and closed off, they have not been forgotten and many tales, stories, legends and accounts of their unusual history are still told today.

Caves were used as manís earliest storage cellars. Thanks to the natural coolness of them, food and other items could be stored in them and kept from spoiling. This was perfect for the lagering that was done to beer by St. Louis brewers. Adam Lemp, who first brought lager beer to thirsty St. Louisans, was the first of the German brewers to put the caves to work for him, but he was far from the only one.

cherok1.jpg (59232 bytes)
An advertisement for the Cherokee Cave, one of the most famous underground
caves in St. Louis, and one that is sadly lost today.

 These brewers altered the caves beneath the city to suit their purposes. They constructed stone arches and brick ceilings to prevent water from seeping in and paved the uneven cave floors. They also constructed staircases and walkways and installed massive wooden kegs where the beer could be aged. While the brewers did save money by having the cave as a starting point, the caverns were expensive to open and renovate. For this reason, many of them did double duty as not only a place for beer storage, but for sales as well. A number of beer gardens and taverns were once located in St. Louis caves and became popular drinking establishments and night spots.

Many of the caves would also boast a rich history. In some cases, breweries might not have been built at all but for the existence of the cave beneath the earth. The Anheuser-Busch brewery cave was first discovered in 1852 by a German brewer named George Schneider. He built a small brewery on the land above it and operated for three years before going out of business. The company was taken over by a competitor, Urban & Hammer, who renamed the property the Bavarian Brewery. As noted in the last chapter, they launched an expansion program that was funded by Eberhard Anheuser, who later ended up owning the company.

In addition to beer lagering, the cave was also used by the military. During the Civil War, it was located close to the Arsenal and the tunnels here were used to hide arms and ammunition. The guns were concealed in beer wagons and were taken to the cave for safekeeping when a raid on the Arsenal was feared.

Later, when Anheuser-Busch began using artificial refrigeration in its plant, the cave beneath the brewery were abandoned and forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 1930ís though when excavations were being done for underground storehouses. Although no longer used today, the cave is a piece of Anheuser-Busch and St. Louis history.

Of the many caves in St. Louis, perhaps the most enigmatic was that of the Lemp family, a portion of which went on to become known commercially as "Cherokee Cave". The caves used by the eccentric Lemp family were not only used by the brewery for beer lagering but later as an entertainment complex for the family itself. During the heyday of the Lemp dynasty, they constructed a swimming pool, a ball room and a vaudeville theater in the caves and all of those are still intact today.

Nearby the Lemp cave was a cave used by the Minnehaha Brewery. In 1945, a wealthy pharmaceutical manufacturer named Lee Hess purchased the ground above the cave, which also contained the historic De Menil Mansion. He demolished some houses that had stood on the old Minnehaha Brewery and built a museum building and parking lot that served as the entrance to Cherokee Caves. The caves became a popular tourist attraction but staff members at the De Menil House taik about Hess and his strange obsession with the cave. He nearly lost his entire fortune trying to develop them and he lived alone in only two rooms of the sprawling De Menil House. He moved all of the house's antiques and furniture into the attic while he was staying there.


The Historic DeMenil Mansion today.

Hess hired workmen to tear open an entrance into the Lemp Cave and in the process found a number of bones that were linked to extinct animals and rare creatures that had been believed to not have lived in the area. In April of 1950, Cherokee Cave was opened to the public and it was a popular attraction for more than ten years. The cave remained open until 1960 and in 1961, it was purchased by the Missouri Highway department to clear the way for Interstate 55. 

The museum and the cave entrance were demolished in 1964 and the cave was filled. Today, the only reminder of the unique place is a short street near Broadway and Cherokee in St. Louis called "Cave Street". The De Menil Mansion was also scheduled to be destroyed but that plan was later changed and the house became a historic site and museum. Legend has it that, although very dangerous, a portion of the Cherokee Cave still exists under the house today. What mysteries still lay hidden under the streets of St. Louis?

For years after the Interstate tore though this historic portion of the city, it was believed that Cherokee Cave had been filled in and completely destroyed. However, those with an interest in that sort of thing can tell you that portions of the cave do still exist today. While not in any way accessible to the public, the mystery of the place still remains alive.

Many can tell you though that the Lemp caverns are still accessible and have been toured in recent years. Past visits to the labyrinth of rooms that were constructed by the Lempís would even reveal the remains of broken and rotted wooden casks where beer was once aged in the cellars. Visitors would also pass through oversized doorways and into rooms lined with brick and stone. The swimming pool remains as well, now filthy and covered with mud. The theater still exists, although today it is hard to imagine audiences who might have assembled here to watch a performance. When the theater was built, the Lempís tore out the natural formations of the cave and replaced with them with formations made from plaster and wood. Tinted in odd colors, this formed the backdrop for the stage.

And while many can attest to the haunting that occurs in the Lemp mansion, once accessible from the cave, there are others who insist that the cave is haunted too. Stories have been told (and none that I can verify, mind you) about strange sounds and shapes that have been seen and heard down here and cannot be explained away as the weird, but natural, happenings in a cave.

And while some questions do remain about the hauntings of this particular cave.. stories from the past were less ambiguous when it came to the ghosts, spirits and strange curses that were linked to at least one other "lost cave".  This cave was known as English Cave and has long been a place of legend in St. Louis. Few living people have ever seen it and it has been regarded as "haunted" since it was first discovered.  Stories say that it brought bad luck and misfortune to every person who owned it!

In the early days of the city, the cave was known only to the Native Americans of the region. There came to be a legend associated with the cave that not only may account for the alleged curse attached to the place, but also for the reports of hauntings that followed in the years to come. According to the story, there was a young Indian woman who fell in love with one of the men from her village. The young man reciprocated her feelings but was unable to marry the girl as she had already been promised to the tribeís war chief, a violent and disagreeable man. Rather than see her in the arms of another, the man convinced his lover to run away with him. They managed to find refuge in the cave and hid there, waiting for the danger to pass. The chief somehow tracked them to the cave though and he and his warriors stationed themselves outside, determined to take back his intended bride. Rather than surrender to the chief, the couple stayed in the cave until they starved to death.

Many years later, this tale was repeated to the white explorers who entered the cave and seemed to have a ring of truth after the bones of two people were discovered inside. If there is any truth to the story, it might explain the accounts that were passed on about the cave, including the ghostly sounds of crying and weeping reported here and the eerie voices that speak in an unknown dialect. Could the spirits of the two Indians have lingered behind in the cave and if so, could they account for the curse that was believed to plague the owners?

Ezra O. English was the first of the luckless proprietors of the place. In 1826, English built a small ale brewery next to the cave and east of the commons. He later set up the brewery inside of the cave and became the first person in St. Louis to use a cave as a commercial property. In 1839, English took on a partner named Isaac McHose, a local businessman, and they began calling the place the St. Louis Brewery. The business grew and by 1842, they had developed the first subterranean beer garden and resort in the city. While the men were expanding the business, they gained a new neighbor. The city was also converting the commons next door to the brewery into a public burial ground. Cholera epidemics had been striking the city and the graveyard began to grow.

By 1849, the renovations to the cave had been completed and English and McHose did their bit to attract visitors to their cave. They built gardens and arbors around the property and hired a family of vocalists to entertain in the cave on Sundays. Later, they constructed a sail swing, arranged hot air balloon rides and hired a military band to play full-time. Unfortunately, they saw little success. The year 1849 is remembered by most in the city as the ďyear of misfortuneĒ, thanks to the terrible cholera epidemic that swept through the city and the great fire that devastated the riverfront. No one seemed to have much interest in the attractions that the cave offered and by 1851, English was the sole proprietor of the cave again. Within a few years, he faded from public records.

However in 1887, two businessmen named F.K. Binz and George Schaper attempted to resurrect English Cave as a commercial mushroom farm. They hoped to fare better than their predecessors had and were constantly reminded of the caveís failures.  The operation was soon in full swing and the men tended their crop by light of kerosene lanterns. For a time, the business was moderately successful and regular customers reportedly came and paid 75 cents for a pound of mushrooms. It didnít last though and in less than two years, the cave was abandoned once again.

The next unlucky occupant was Paul-Wack Wine Co., which became widely acclaimed for the fine wines they offered. Great wines or not though, they didnít stay around much longer than the mushroom farm. In 1897, the company used the cave for storage for their nearby winery but soon closed down. The winery was the last company to use the cave for business purposes,  and eventually the cave was forgotten.

During the 1960ís though, interest in the cave was revived thanks to Hubert and Charlotte Rother, the authors of the excellent and indispensable book, Lost Caves of St. Louis. They proposed a plan for re-opening the cave with the help of the Hondo Grotto, a local chapter of the Missouri Speological Society, a group of cave explorers. The problem they faced was getting into the cavern. The entrances had been sealed off years before when it was discovered that water from Benton Park was draining into the cave.

They picked up promising clues and bits of information and tried to follow as many leads as possible, but ran into a blank wall every time. There was seemingly no way into the cave. It is rumored to be completely under water today.

Is the curse of English Cave finally ended then? Will curious visitors and unlucky brewery owners no longer disturb the rest of the Indian girl and her lover? Perhaps now the two can live out their eternity within the damp and murky darkness of English Cave and be no longer bothered by trespassers from the world above.

Recommended Reading: THE LOST CAVES OF ST. LOUIS by Hubert and Charlotte Rother. The book was written in 1964 and updated to the present by the authors, who had the chance to explore many of the spooky and mysterious caves while writing the book. It is unfortunately out of print now, but if you can find a used copy, it is well worth the search!

The De Menil Mansion, which lies above the remains of Cherokee Cave, can be found in St. Louis, Missouri. Take Interstate 55 to Broadway and follow that to Cherokee Street. Turn west on Cherokee one block and then right onto De Menil Place. The house is located on the corner.

Thanks to Joe Light for additional information.

 

© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.