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In prehistoric times, what is now St. Louis was covered by seas; over the millennia, thick layers of limestone formed where there had been sea beds. The slow steady action of water and time honeycombed the limestone and left it full of unexpected caverns and passages. What appears-on the surface-to be completely solid and reliable, turns out to be merely a deceptive façade.
St. Louis' underground fascinates local writers
Michael Kahn used the Cherokee Cave, a few miles south of the Arch, as part of the Rachel Gold mystery novel, 'Due diligence'.
Underground St. Louis also intrigued Eileen Dryer in 'Bad medicine' and Laurell K. Hamilton in 'The lunatic cafe'.
This liability was turned into an asset. St. Louis' hidden caves provided acres of inexpensive cool storage.
It was a setting made to order for breweries, who used the natural caves for lagering rooms and storage. In the 19th Century, the number of St. Louis breweries approached 50, and most of them were built to take advantage of attached cave systems. St. Louis became the brewery capital of the United States; the Anheuser-Busch corporation on Pestalozzi was built on caves.
Uhrig's Cave, opening beneath Jefferson and Washington Streets, was the most elaborate of the St. Louis commercial caves. Associated with a brewery, it contained a beer garden and 300-seat theater. Performances of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'H.M.S. Pinafore' played here for months to the delight of audiences.
The site retained its civic importance (although ABOVE ground) when the St. Louis Coliseum was built over Uhrig's Cave in 1908.
Other commercial uses were found for the underground space. Brick vaults and flo oring made the passages more reliably useful; fairly simple adaptations allowed the caves to be used as warehouses, night clubs, roller rinks, mushroom farms. When Prohibition took effect, the hidden galleries took on a new life as speakeasies along the western edge of downtown.
Today the caves are sealed and almost forgotten. They are choked with rubble and mainly impassable. Access is forbidden, and about the only use they've gotten in recent decades has been as an occasional Halloween season haunted house. Most St. Louisans have no idea that their down-to-earth city has always been balanced on the edge of the abyss.
Article by: St. Louis Public Library staff