The Local: Wabasha Caves, St. Paul

by Chris on June 20, 2011

A trip to the Wabasha Street Caves, part of St. Paul’s gangster history

Wabasha Caves, St. Paul

Ask a Minneapolis local about things to do in St. Paul and you’ll come up with a blank stare; vice versa on the other side of the Mississippi. The Twin Cities are more like distant relations than blood brothers, with very different histories and sensibilities. When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, people rarely crossed the river from my Minneapolis suburb. It wasn’t that the Hennepin Countians looked down on those over in Ramsey – but if you phrased the question “Why don’t we go to St. Paul more often?” to most adults of my parents’ circle, you’d probably get a quizzical look that answered the question with another: “But why would we?”

That’s not because St. Paul is lacking in diversions. It’s the State Capitol, after all, and I did take more than one field trip through that dome. St Paul is also the home to the state’s Science Museum and Omni Theater (a big attraction when I was a kid),  the Minnesota State Fair, and the Jonathan Paddleford, a riverboat cruise that seemed the ultimate in good times when I was a tween. I had my high school prom in Landmark Center, I went to Lollapalooza on Harriet Island, I spent time nosing around Macalester College.

Yet I never realized the city’s gangster history until this year, when I toured St. Paul during the SATW Editors Council. Turns out that St. Paul was a haven for bank robbers, bootleggers and murderers in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to an agreement that police chief John O’Connor struck with the criminal element. As long as the criminals did their work elsewhere and left St. Paul alone, they would be left alone.

Wabasha Caves

And so the O’Connor agreement, as it was known, drew the period’s most wanted. John Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, Roger “the Terrible” Touhy, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and the Barker gang all spent time in St. Paul, retreating there to rest after wreaking havoc elsewhere in the Midwest.

Wabasha Caves

I learned all this from Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here, a book that documents the O’Connor era. Over lunch, Maccabee told us that the system fell apart only when the gangsters failed to live up to their end of the deal. In 1933, the Barker-Karpis gang kidnapped William Hamm Jr. president of the Theodore Hamm  Brewing Company, and banker Edward Bremer.

While both men were returned unharmed after ransoms were paid, the deeds were frightening enough for St. Paul’s leading businessmen – many of whom had benefited directly and indirectly from the mobsters’ business – to work with the FBI to bring the criminals to justice.

Wabasha Caves

Remnants of this gangster past can be seen around St. Paul, sometimes in name only. Nina’s Coffee Cafe is named for Nina Clifford, Minnesota’s most famous madam who ran a brothel from 1889 to 1929. The 19th century building in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood has nothing to do with the house of prostitution, but it is a happening place, full of writers aiming to please their editors (wait, maybe there are some similarities). Downstairs is Common Good Books, known for its famous proprietor, Garrison Keillor.

Wabasha Caves, St Paul

Far more authentic are the Wabasha Street Caves, sandstone mines cut into the south shore of the Mississippi River by Lyman Dayton who was looking for silica for a glass company. By 1900, the mines’ damp interior had been turned into the country’s largest mushroom cave owned by Bill and Josie Lehman.

Always on the lookout for an opportunity, the Lehman used as the caves as a speakeasy during the 1920s. Here gangsters such as John Dillinger and Ma Barker hobnobbd with St. Paul’s most powerful politicians and businessmen, who weren’t going to let Prohibition stop them from having a good time. After the ban on alcoholic beverages was lifted, the Lehmans turned the speakeasy into the above-ground nightclub Castle Royale, where musicians such as Cab Calloway and the Dorsey Brothers played.

Wabasha caves, St Paul

The caves are now open for events, tours, and private parties such as weddings. Two-hour theme tours on St. Paul gangsters or Ghosts cost $24; a 45-minute historic tour costs $6. Thursdays are Swing Night, where you can dance to a live band for $7. True to its speakeasy past, you need a password (according to the website, it’s “Gus Sent Me.”)

Wabasha caves, St Paul

But what makes Wabasha even more interesting are its unseen residents. Creepy incidents happen all the time, said Donna Bremer, owner of the caves, and pictures that people take in the hall often have orbs in the back. She showed us a picture taken at a wedding where you could see the outline of a person in the back. It’s above – can you see it? The only chill I felt was from the cave itself; if you go, bring a sweater or a jacket, as it can feel damp down there.

I know that I only scratched the surface of fun things to do in St. Paul. There’s the mansions on Summit Avenue, where F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up; the breweries that made the city’s fortunes, some of which still exist; and bars where Irish traditional music thrives (as well as a nonprofit center that keeps it alive). Plenty of reasons for a Minneapolian to cross the river.




| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

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