Today, St Louis is a vibrant city with a myriad of world-class attractions, but for decades the most popular attractions for visitors were mostly found underground.
Although you can’t tell by looking at it, the River City is built on a vast series of caves, and savvy entrepreneurs used them early on to attract and entertain tourists.
Native Americans no doubt knew of the caves and probably utilized them. Beer-producing German immigrants used them in the 1800s to lager their brew, and to store it. With an eye toward creating additional revenue streams, some breweries created beer gardens and entertainment venues in the caves. By the early 1850s Uhrig’s Cave, under Jefferson and Washington streets, was a major attraction, offering tours, concerts and picnics.
Another well-known cavern, Cherokee Cave, cooled beer produced by the Lemp Brewery. So vast is the network under the streets that the Lemps reportedly travelled through the underground passages between their home and the brewery and built a theatre and a pool in the cave’s “rooms.”
In the 1950s entrepreneur Lee Hess dubbed part of the network “Cherokee Cave” and opened it to tours giving St. Louis an unusual urban show cave. But when Interstate 55 was built in the 1960s, access to the cave was largely sealed. However, in recent years “Scarefest,” a haunted Halloween attraction taking place every autumn, has utilized the old lagering room in its haunted brewery experience. The historic Lemp Mansion, once home to the ill-fated Lemps of brewing fame, continues as a restaurant/bar/inn serving up lunch, dinner, murder mystery dinners and tales of the family’s three suicides.
Cliff Cave, aka Indian Cave, in Cliff Cave County Park in St Louis County gave visitors an authentic cave experience, as opposed to a show cave experience, but after an underground flash flood there in the 1990s, access was heavily restricted. Cliff Cave is also gated to help protect the Indiana bats, an endangered species of bats that live there. Access to other caves is sometimes temporarily restricted to help control the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that does not affect humans but is fatal to bats.
If you want to visit a cave outside of the city, you can travel an hour or so out of town to the Ozark countryside. Meramec Caverns, a popular show cave in Stanton, MO, offers year-round guided tours along lighted walkways amidst fascinating limestone formations deep underground. It’s alleged that outlaw Jesse James and his gang used the cave as a hideout.
But if you want to experience a “wild” cave in its natural state sans coloured lights and touristy talk, you can do so at two nearby state parks:
Fisher Cave in Meramec State Park in Sullivan, MO, offers visitors naturalist-led tours where they can view multiple rooms with calcite formations, including hellectites and 30-foot tall columns, as well as well-preserved bear claw marks.
At Onondaga State Park in Leasburg, MO, visitors can sign up for tours of Onondaga Cave with its amazing array of stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and other speleothems and Cathedral Cave, which offers a more strenuous lantern-lit tour.
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Have you been underground in St. Louis? Which caves did you visit? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Kathie Sutin