Wabasha Street Caves
The Wabasha Street Caves are sandstone caves near the Mississippi River in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota.
People have used the caves for various purposes, including growing mushrooms, food storage, blue cheese production, speakeasies, restaurants, nightclubs, and a haven for mobsters in the 1920s and 1930s.
More recently, it has served as a music and dance hall with live music. It is also a tourist attraction. The owners offer tours, including historical and haunted tours.
According to legends, the ghosts of people whose bodies mobsters allegedly dumped in the caves in the 1920s and 1930s still haunt the place.
In the era preceding the arrival of Europeans in the St. Paul area, the Wabasha Street Caves were a network of naturally occurring cave structures the Mississippi River currents carved from the St. Peter Sandstone in the Mississippi River valley.
Sandstone quarrying in the 1840s
People often describe the caves in their present state as artificial because mining activity in the 19th century enlarged the original naturally occurring caves.
Miners enlarged existing caves and dug new ones while quarrying for St. Peter Sandstone, also known as Ottawa Sand. St. Peter Sandstone, named after St. Peter River (now Minnesota River), is high-purity (99 percent) quartz (crystalline silica) used as raw material for manufacturing clear glass.
Mushroom cultivation in the 1880s
In the 1880s, people used the Wabasha Street Caves for mushroom growing. The cool interior made the caves suitable for mushroom cultivation.
The St.Paul area became an important center of mushroom production, earning itself the nickname Mushroom Valley (Historic Twin Cities). One of the pioneers of the mushroom production industry in the St. Paul area was a French immigrant Albert Mouchnotte.
He teamed up with other local investors in the early 1900s to start a mushroom-growing operation in the Wabasha Street Caves.
Prohibition era, the 1920s
However, in the 1920s, Mouchnotte quickly recognized that Prohibition had opened up more profitable investment opportunities. He abandoned his mushroom business and opened a restaurant and bar, the Wabasha Street Speakeasy.
In the “roaring” 20s Prohibition era, when the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol were illegal, a daring entrepreneur could make a fortune selling alcoholic beverages illegally.
Speakeasies were discreet or underground nightlife establishments where people who wanted alcoholic beverages could get them if they could pay the price. The typical speakeasy was a barroom operating under the cover of a legitimate restaurant and nightclub. You could access the barroom by discreetly approaching the operators, thus the expression “speakeasy.”
According to locals, Mouchnotte’s speakeasy could operate unhindered in St. Paul because the city’s police under Chief John O’Connor and his successors allegedly reached an agreement with the gangsters. The agreement allowed the mobsters to operate without hindrance, provided they refrained from violent crimes.
Both parties kept their side of the deal, so Mouchnotte did not have to bother about the police.
1930s Depression era: William & Josie Lehmann’s Castle Royal
The Wabasha Street Caves changed hands after Prohibition ended in 1933.
In October 1933, Mouchnotte’s daughter and her husband Josie and William Lehmann took over the facility and opened a new restaurant and nightclub, the Castle Royal.
The Castle Royal on St. Paul’s West Side was a fashionable high-class restaurant and nightclub. It catered to the dining and entertainment tastes of wealthy clientele. It had a plush gambling back room allegedly frequented by the who’s who of the underworld during the 1930s Public Enemy era.
Local newspapers touted the establishment as the world’s most “gorgeous” nightclub. It added to the splendor of nightlife in the city. There were live performances by famous big-name bands and artists, such as the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James, and Cab Calloway.
Legend also has it that the elite of the 1930s underworld, such as John Dillinger and Alvin “Creepy” Karips of the Ma Barker–Karpis gang, frequented Castle Royal.
World War II/Post World War II era
Castle Royal closed in 1941, early in the World War II era, and the Lehmanns resumed mushroom-growing operations there.
From the late 1950s until the mid-1960s, the Wabasha Street Cave hosted other food-related business operations, including storing food products such as blue cheese.
The Wabasha Street Caves in the 1970s
The caves changed hands in 1965 when the Lehmanns moved their business to another site. There was a fire incident and flooding when the Mississippi River overflowed, causing a pile of debris to fill the cave. A banking institution took over the property after the owners declared bankruptcy.
A discotheque reportedly operated in the caves in the late 1970s.
Paranormal Tours at the Wabasha Street Caves
Today a restaurant and bar known as Wabasha Street Caves operates there. The present owners of the caves have also opened the facility for tours.
Visitors can book tours to see the old caves where quarrying for sandstone took place. They can also see the caves where the old Castle Royal restaurant and nightclub operated.
Tour guides share stories about significant events from the past, including mobster fights and shootings that occurred in the caves.
Visitors have also been warned not to wander in the caves alone due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Wabasha Street Caves tour guides also share stories about ghost hauntings and alleged paranormal activity. Some say the caves are the most haunted places in Minnesota.
According to paranormal enthusiasts, the ghosts of mobsters killed at the Wabasha Street Caves during the gangland era of the 1920s and 1930s still haunt the place. Among the ghosts allegedly haunting the caves are those of three mobsters murdered in the Fireside Room at Castle Royal.
The triple gangland murder cover-up
People often cite an alleged incident at Castle Royal in the 1930s to illustrate the extent of the compact between the police and underworld gangs during the 1930s.
According to a St. Paul legend, during an off-business period on a weekend, four mobsters sat around a table playing poker in the Fireside Room while a lone waitress hung around in the shadows after serving them.
The band was packing up when a man in a homburg hat and dark pinstripe suit entered the smoke-filled room carrying a leather case. He set the case on a nearby table and sternly ordered the band to leave. They sensed trouble and left in haste, but the men at the table did not look up from their game.
Feeling uneasy, the waitress slid quietly into the adjoining kitchen and waited. Moments later, she heard a short burst of Tommy gunfire, followed by a long silence.
After waiting a while, she gingerly cracked open the kitchen door and peeped discreetly. She saw three men lying dead on the ground in a pool of blood.
The fourth poker player and the man who entered carrying a leather case had disappeared.
St. Paul Police cover-up
The waitress called St. Paul police. When the officers arrived, they entered the Fireside Room scene of the crime while the waitress stayed outside.
After a long wait, the officers emerged and told the astonished waitress that they found no evidence of a crime in the room. They then accused her of filing a false report.
When she protested, they shut her up and led her to view the room, after which they bundled her out of the crime scene to their station for debriefing.
Local legend claims that the officers had quickly cleaned up the murder scene and buried the dead men in a backroom or cave. But while working in the poorly lit room dark, they missed a set of bullet holes in the cave walls near the fireplace.
People who later went into the room and saw the bullet holes realized there had been a cover-up.
Local legend alleges mobsters dumped bodies in the dark caves and hidden tunnels. According to folklore, the caves contain dozens of buried bodies, and ghosts of the victims of mob violence haunt the caves.
People who visited the caves when it was a discotheque in the 1970s claimed they saw ghosts of men dressed in 1920s and 1930s-style attire.
Some said they saw one of the gangsters killed while playing poker. He reportedly walked past a group of visitors, looking at them with an angry expression on his face. He then passed through a cave wall and disappeared.
Others reported poltergeist activity during live music performances. A piece of equipment reportedly flew off the stage, although no one threw it.
Another ghost was the spirit of a strange woman seen standing in the bar area. Patrons reported seeing the ghost of a man in a Panama hat sitting in the audience during a performance.
Got something to say about this case? Leave a comment or get in touch if you have new information or media you think we should add.
Top image courtesy of Jonathunder used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.
|Address||215 Wabasha Street South, St. Paul, MN 55107|
Where to find
In the media
http://www.historictwincities.com/2019/12/10/wabasha-street-caves/, “Historic Twin Cities: Wabasha Street Caves,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://wanderthemap.com/2014/11/gangster-history-wabasha-street-caves/, “Gangster history at the Wabasha street caeves,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.nachusagrasslands.org/st-peter-sandstone.html, “St. Peter Sandstone,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2022/08/16/what-is-a-speakeasy/10302088002/, “What is a speakeasy? A club? A bar? A restaurant? We have answers,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/minnesota/minneapolis/haunted-cave-saint-paul-mn/, “This Haunted Cave In Saint Paul Is Not For The Faint Of Heart,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.wabashacaves.com/, “Website: Wabasha Street Caves,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.kare11.com/article/news/mns-most-haunted-wabasha-street-caves/89-606690242, “MN’s Most Haunted: Wabasha Street Caves,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://mndaily.com/269295/arts-entertainment/ghosts-gangsters-and-more-a-closer-look-at-one-of-st-pauls-spookiest-spots/, “Ghosts, gangsters and more — a closer look at one of St. Paul’s spookiest spots,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.theceshop.com/agent-essentials/blog/wabasha-street-caves-let-visitors-meet-local-ghosts, “Ghosts, gangsters and more — a closer look at one of St. Paul’s spookiest spots,” accessed on April 18, 2023.
https://www.legendsofamerica.com/20th-gangsters/, “Gangsters, Mobsters & Outlaws of the 20th Century,” accessed on April 18, 2023.