UNGER UPFRONT: For some old St. Louisans, a cold beer was beneath them

2012-08-22T00:01:00Z 2012-08-31T10:01:59Z UNGER UPFRONT: For some old St. Louisans, a cold beer was beneath themBy Steve Unger stltoday.com
August 22, 2012 12:01 am  • 

Even though the summer of 2012 has been mercifully cooling off lately, you only have to live in St. Louis for a few years to realize that our Augusts can be brutally hot and miserable.

Today we have the advantages of air-conditioning, but our 19th-century predecessors obviously didn't. Fortunately for them, they had caves. St. Louis is built on top of thick layers of limestone — a relatively soluble kind of rock that's susceptible to the formation of caves and tunnels over millions of years. The caves maintain a constant temperature of about 56 or 57 degrees.

When French trappers decided to plant a town here in 1764, they chose the location for many good reasons, but the thought of having ready access to temperature-regulated underground vaults probably wasn't one of them.

But a few generations later, the caves which had been discovered under the city attracted a lot of German brewers and other entrepreneurs. The naturally cooled caves were ideal for the aging, chilling and storage of lager beer in the pre-refrigerated days. By the 1840s and '50s, dozens of breweries were operating in St. Louis. Many of them originated here simply to take advantage of the caves.

It didn't take long for smart businessmen to figure out that a cool cave full of beer would be a very popular destination during the heat of Midwestern summers. Soon they were outfitting caves with brick walls, wooden floors and gas lights. Some of the larger caves even featured bandstands or stages.

One of the most famous and popular St. Louis underground venues of that era was Uhrig's Cave, which was located near today's intersection of Washington and Jefferson Avenues. Brothers Ignatz and Joseph Uhrig owned a brewery nearby, and they constructed a series of subterranean tunnels to move fresh beer directly into the caves. They also added a 300-seat theatre to the cave, and it was reportedly the site of the American premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's musical, "H.M.S. Pinafore."

The Civil War interrupted the popularity of the city's caves, as military leaders claimed the vaults for the hiding or storage of weapons, ammunition and supplies. Guns and bullets were sometimes concealed inside beer barrels and wagons, although I sure don't see the logic behind that decision. Did some Army officer actually believe that enemy soldiers who stumbled upon the caves might not be inclined to open the beer containers first?

After the war, the cave operators quickly got back to the business of serving hot, thirsty St. Louisans in comfort.

In addition to providing air-cooled venues for entertainment and socializing, other elaborate cave systems below the city became private playgrounds for wealthy brewers. The legendary Cherokee Cave near Broadway in south St. Louis was owned by the well-known Lemp brewing family, who later installed a ballroom and swimming pool in their underground haven.

Today Cherokee Cave has taken on a bit of a mythical status among urban spelunkers and local historians. Although most entrances to the cave have been lost over the years to the construction of highways and buildings, daring explorers can still get into Cherokee's caverns and passageways — usually illegally. A number of years ago, a Channel Nine video crew went along on a special tour of the cave, and the place still revealed signs of its former glory.

There are also many recurring stories about Cherokee Cave being haunted. That would be consistent with the scary tales of Lemp Mansion, the brewing family's infamous home which was the scene of so many disturbing personal tragedies. Some adventurous individuals who have entered the cave report strange, unexplained sounds coming from Cherokee's depths, including classic ghostly noises such as moaning, weeping and the rattling of chains.

The history and folklore associated with St. Louis' many caves can be genuinely fascinating, but the willingness to crawl down into the cold, damp muck requires another level of commitment.

My personal spelunking career came to an abrupt and painful end in college when I fell off a cliff inside Buckner's Cave in southern Indiana. That was like a nightmare — free-falling in total darkness — which I'd rather forget. Now give me underground pavement, hand rails and electric lights.

If you get the urge to tour a cave, try Meramec Caverns in Stanton or Onondaga Cave near Leasburg. To add a literary spin to your trip, head up to Hannibal and visit Mark Twain Cave, first made famous in "Tom Sawyer."

However, in each of those places you'll have to go back outside to find a cold beer.

Copyright 2015 stltoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.