Underground Action: The rebels, rogues, and urban explorers who mapped the subterranean Twin Cities

This tunnel in the Yoerg Brewery cellars used to horseshoe between the brewery’s ice chute (left) and basement door (right, backfilled). Note the utility tunnel in the upper-right corner as well as the lighting brackets on the ceiling. // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

This tunnel in the Yoerg Brewery cellars used to horseshoe between the brewery’s ice chute (left) and basement door (right, backfilled) // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

Trespassing is illegal. Urban exploration is dangerous. Do not go to these places and/or do what we do. You could be fined, arrested, hurt, killed…”

The disclaimer is emblazoned in red on the front page of Action Squad’s website. It’s a warning, but also a siren’s call to those who hunger to explore the abandoned pockets of the civilized world. It’s a call to arms to those who possess the kind of punk rock attitude and devil-may-care spirit that motivates people to step over the “No Trespassing” signs. For a rare few, urban exploration isn’t a hobby, it’s a calling. 

For almost a decade, the best-known urban exploration group in the Twin Cities was Action Squad. The squad’s site recounts its exploits: tales about scaling the sides of buildings, wading through waist deep sewage, rappelling hundreds of feet into unknown caverns, and dodging security cameras to sneak into abandoned sand mines. Any place that seemed like a challenge to get into was a potential target—particularly underground, abandoned, and historic sites. The ringleader for all of these adventures was a mysterious figure known only as Max Action. 

The group formed in late 1996 when a group of students at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus grew bored of the traditional college bar scene and started looking for something more exciting. After a night of drinking, the group decided to breach the steam tunnels rumored to exist under the campus. They were successful. After a few additional urban exploration expeditions, Max Action began documenting the Squad’s exploits online. Of course, the site’s early popularity may have been due to Action Squad’s penchant for posting the nude photos they took while deep underground. 

Agent Wop, Winger, and Nelson Mandolin of Action Squad enter the Lucky 13 Drain Mouth // Photo via Action Squad website

In order to access areas of the city isolated enough to take nudes, Action Squad had to plan accordingly, packing their bags with headlamps, ropes, and other tools to help them break into sealed areas. The squad would often consult maps and make backup plans in case someone got lost, caught, or injured. The squad itself consisted of a ragtag group of adventurers in their early to late 20s and ranged from conservatively-dressed law students to high school dropouts with mohawks. The site described the crew as a “constantly shifting team of adventurers.”

But “constantly shifting” may be the operative words. 

“Action Squad was just one man,” says one urban explorer known as Slim Jim, who preferred to not use his real name for this story. “The site paints them as a group of people, but it was really just Max Action and whoever was available to go on a mission at the time. There were a lot of different groups exploring the Cities at the time, and we all shared the desire to get into places that people just don’t normally go. I think, the reason Action Squad became so popular was because Max Action was such a good writer.”

Minnesota Gneiss

Three hundred tea lights illuminate the "Rotunda" under the historic Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

Three hundred tea lights illuminate the “Rotunda” under the historic Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

The United States is far from an urban explorer’s paradise. Europe with its millennia-old foundations and lenient trespassing laws is a more fertile landscape for the underground adventurer. However, the Twin Cities have a few surprises hidden under their basements thanks to the sandstone where they reside. 

In many U.S. cities, civil engineers dig trenches to hide the network of gas and water pipes that connect every building in their municipality. The Twin Cities, on the other hand, were settled on top of layers of soft sandstone, which is incredibly easy to excavate. Rather than bury our pipes, our city’s founders quickly discovered that it was actually easier to pickaxe their way through the stone. This left Minneapolis and St. Paul with a vast network of underground caves and passages that include telephone, gas, and trolley lines dating back to the mid-1800s. In some places, these tunnels are reportedly five stories deep and go on for miles. 

Those who are willing to risk both the heights and the claustrophobia of urban exploring are treated to rare sights. Experienced urban explorers talk enthusiastically about the thrill of walking over ground that hasn’t seen human visitors in years, not knowing what lies around every corner, and the rewarding challenge of figuring out how to get out.

For photographer Dan Glass, who runs the website Substreet.org, exploring caves and abandoned buildings is a way to document a city’s history. “The purpose of this project is to provide a photojournalistic approach to document our dusty footprints where others can’t (or won’t) tread any longer,” Glass writes on his website. “I want to reclaim the cultural past of the neighborhoods, cities and countries that I explore: something that belongs to everyone, not whoever puts up the most barbed wire.”

For other explorers, like Action Squad, the challenge of making it inside somewhere no one else could was a major motivating factor. One of the riskiest “missions” Action Squad embarked on was accessing the sand mines beneath the Ford Assembly Plant in Highland Park, which was sealed off in the 1980s and remained heavily monitored by security guards and cameras. 

Max Action climbing a ladder in the Ford Plant // Photo via Action Squad website

“Common wisdom among local tunnel rats had been that the Ford Tunnels were impossible to get into,” Max Action writes in the mission’s archive. “In certain circles, the tunnel system achieved almost mythic status. Getting in was considered a pleasant but impossible dream. Well, Action Squad wanted to get in… and Goonies never say die.” And in fall of 2000, after Max Action and fellow Action Squader Urban Waste snuck through the woods and raced past security cameras, they found themselves walking through the sand mines. “‘Holy shit,’ I heard myself whisper involuntarily,” wrote Max Action. “We’d made it: we were in the tunnels. And damn, it felt good.” 

Of course, you can’t chart your course through these kinds of tunnels on Google Maps, and most of their entrances feature heavy padlocks. Those locks are there for a reason, too. As one would imagine, architecture that has been left to rot for nearly 150 years tends to be a little fragile or even dangerous. Many of the areas that urban explorers stroll through are full of holes, asbestos, jagged concrete, and broken glass—not to mention the wild animals and other vagabonds who aren’t eager to have their space invaded. 

The local news is littered with horror stories of urban explorers who set off for a night of adventure only to meet an untimely demise. In 2004, three teenagers choked on carbon monoxide fumes while exploring the legendary Wabasha Street caves on St. Paul’s West Side. In 2009, a 30-year-old photographer drowned while navigating a tunnel near the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue Bridge. Then, in 2015, a woman fell to her death after slipping off a 10th-floor ladder in the abandoned Bunge grain elevator in the Como neighborhood. And sometimes, urban explorers are mistaken by police for burglars or even terrorists. 

Despite this, urban exploration remains attractive to those who don’t consider their favorite pastime as dangerous as it sounds in news stories. Exploring incidents receive great visibility in the media, according to Slim Jim, but when you compare those numbers with the number of people visiting these places over time, the incident rate may not be as high as it seems.

A six-way intersection in the Yoerg Brewery cellars // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

A six-way intersection in the Yoerg Brewery cellars // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

“Most of the dangers of entering the caves and tunnels in St. Paul are caused by the city’s efforts to seal them, making something as simple as a sprained ankle or loss of light into a major situation,” claims Slim Jim. “If the city were to open all the entrances and remove the concrete and rebar that they placed in many of the caves as a low-cost method of disposal, returning the caves to their original condition with sand floors, the caves would be as safe if not safer than hiking on the surface.”

But Mike Gaede, assistant chief of fire and rescue operations for the Saint Paul Fire Department, suggests that the issue is not that simple. “The caves in St. Paul pose multiple life safety hazards and are inherently dangerous,” Gaede says. “Urban exploring in these caves puts people at risk of a collapse, asphyxiation, or fall hazards made even more critical by lack of communication to the outside for emergency response.”

He goes on to explain that the structural integrity of the caves is constantly changing from seasonal expansion and contraction of the stone, as well as the effects of nearby traffic and road construction, increasing the chances of a structural collapse. Additionally, Gaede points out explorers that enter these spaces aren’t just putting themselves at risk of injury or death. “Entering these caves has the potential to put both the lives of individuals at risk and the emergency responders who might be called to intervene on their behalf.”

Urban Expiration 

Drafter's Tunnel in the Yoerg Brewery cellars // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

Drafter’s Tunnel in the Yoerg Brewery cellars // Photo by Dan Glass, Substreet.org

Like most things, Action Squad’s adventures may have come to an end. The site hasn’t been updated since 2014, and Max Action has moved on. He now lives in an off-the-grid trailer and runs a sustainable organic farm with his wife. (We reached out to Max for this story, but he declined to comment.) But the urban exploring scene in the Twin Cities is still thriving, with a younger generation sneaking their ways into many of the tunnels and caves Action Squad once tread. 

As for Slim Jim, he still explores underground caves, but he’s moved on from the Twin Cities. Jim says he’s seen everything the Cities have to offer, but his love for exploring has led him to dig his own underground labyrinth beneath a 12-acre patch of land in rural Wisconsin. The land surrounding this three-dimensional maze even features a solar-heated water tower, a monorail, and a fairy garden. 

“It’s a creative outlet,” says Jim. “I wanted to create something that future like-minded people would enjoy exploring for generations to come. I enjoy being in places that people rarely go—just exploring and seeing what new thing is around every corner.”

Someday Jim might return to his old haunts in the Twin Cities. If he’s lucky, he might even be joined by Max Action, because an urban explorer never really loses the itch to climb through a city’s roots. These self-described tunnel rats are driven by the same urge that has sent past generations up the slopes of Mount Everest. It’s in their blood. They need to explore.

Editor’s Note: The Growler would like to remind readers that it is illegal to trespass on private property and areas marked “no trespassing” by the city. This article is in no way related to Greg Brick’s book, “Subterranean Twin Cities.”

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