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Fountain Cave

Site submitted by: Steve Lee


River Mile 841.60 — Left Descending Bank




Note the storm sewer in the small cove. Before it was filled during construction of Shepard Road a ravine ran from the river to a cave here. At the time of Shepard Road construction the cave was used for drainage and as a sewer for the nearby railyard. The cave is NOT accessible by crawling back up the sewer pipe (so don't try that dangerous stunt. Trust me.). But that cave-sewer has a distinguished history as the birthplace of St.Paul.

Before the great waterfall migrated past this area toward St.Anthony, the glacial melt-water in the sandstone was held back within the sandstone by the river's water. After the migrating waterfall carved the river to a much greater depth, the water in the sandstone was "uncorked." This faster-flowing water excavated a cave into the soft sandstone.

A number of explorers and soldiers explored the cave in the 1800's, wading through knee or chest-deep water in the cave. Major Steven Long visited the cave in 1817 with his crew on their 6-oared skiff. They found a 16 foot-high cave opening at the end of a flower-filled ravine. Icy cold water flowed from the cave. They explored about 200 yards into the cave before their candles went out. A fourth of July celebration in 1831 included firing one of the Fort's cannons from within the cave, nearly collapsing the entry. In 1838 "Pigs Eye" Pierre Parrant erected a cabin at the mouth of the cave to sell liquor from. The was just outside the military reservation (and thus just beyond the jurisdiction of the Commander). Pierre Parrant, a Canadian voyageur of the 1830's, was described in the city's first history as a "coarse one-eyed low browed fellow". This location was handy to the Indians of the area, to the soldiers of the fort, and to traders with wholesale whiskey to sell. Several drunken soldiers died on the long walk back to the fort along the cliffs. Pigs Eye operated the rough saloon at the cave's mouth for a couple of years before losing the land for an unpaid debt. In 1839 Donald McDonald was operating a "Half-Way House" saloon at the cave when it received the first steamboat cargo to reach the St.Paul settlement- six barrels of whiskey. (MST. 21 May 2002. p. B1 [Quoting the Minnesota Book of Days of the Minnesota Historical Society])

During the latter half of the 1800's the cave was popular for picnics and tours. In 1880's the Chicago , St.Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railroad built shops and a roundhouse atop the cave, near what is now Randolf Road and Drake Street. This construction interfered with the apparent source of the cave's water, where Fountain Creek flowed into the ground in a sinkhole near the current Randolph and Drake. Some of the sewage and wastes of the railroad were discharged into the cave. During the 1920's at least one group ran a moonshine still within the cave, and in the 1950's Archer Daniels Midland built a grain elevator at the top of the cave's ravine. In 1960 the ravine was filled for construction of Shepard Road, and the cave's mouth was lost (Brick, Greg 1995. pp. 4-14). Greg Brick's articles provide details for readers interested in the Twin Cities' underground.


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The Mississippi River Field Guide is provided by Friends of the Mississippi River.