article by Taylor Leonard
Fear of the unknown cuts to the core of being human. But what about fear of the known unknowns? Having evidence to confirm something exists but not enough to understand exactly what’s out there puts people at unease.
Such is the situation for hundreds of citizens living in the Victorian red brick neighborhood of Benton Park on the south side of Saint Louis, Missouri. Their century-old homes and business spaces rest above a sealed-off 10,000 square-foot cave cursed, it’s been said, by native spirits.
Known as “English Cave”, its legendary inaccessibility and history of associated misfortune and tragedy have generated a Raiders of the Lost Ark level of local determination to open it and glimpse the potentially supernatural contents within.
The land underneath the City of Saint Louis was once honeycombed with dozens if not hundreds of caves. German immigrants of the 19th century took advantage of the consistent temperatures of these underground chambers for beer gardens and lager storage. But the eventual invention of refrigeration and air conditioning caused the city caves to fall into disuse. With urban sprawl spreading over these dark, dank, hollow voids, developers and city managers often chose to fill the caves in with the rubble of demolished breweries overhead.
Some remains of the old city caves can still be entered to this day, trafficked frequently by urban explorers and mischievous youth.
The English Cave is exceptional from other lost city caves for a number of reasons, one being its notoriety for being cursed, a reputation which has accompanied it since European settlers first explored it in the early 1800s. The cave’s original, native name, if it had one, is lost to history. But its close proximity to the once great Cahokia settlement almost guarantees there was at least occasional human activity in the cave for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.
Indeed, European explorers were said to have found a pair of human skeletons in the farthest reaches of the void, holding each other in a death embrace. Native guides spoke of a legend associated with the cave, wherein a warrior ran off with his chief’s bride-to-be, eventually tracked to the underground chamber. Rather than surrender, the couple chose to die together in the dark. The surviving spirits were said to invoke misfortune on anyone who dare enter and threaten their peaceful unity. The history of failed businessmen and mentally unstable proprietors associated with the cavern, the records of whom also help to paint a portrait of this inaccessible, unphotographed void, certainly doesn’t disprove claims of it being a cursed subterranean property.
Ezra English, the brewer whom the sealed cave is named after, partnered with his melancholy brother-in-law Isaac McHose in 1843 after a rocky start at making ale on his own. Their joint beer garden venture, though successful at first, went bust by the end of the decade. McHose attempted suicide soon after but failed, one newspaper account stated, “due to the dullness of the knife.” He would die from unknown causes a little over a year later at the age of 42. The fortunes of the English family, a prominent St. Louis tribe prior to getting mixed up with cave business, would never recover.
Newspaper and periodical accounts from these eras described English Cave as follows: a single entrance shaft, laid with stone steps, leading to an iron door roughly 50 feet below street level, behind which was a small chamber. From this small cavern – about 2000 square-feet in size, one descended a dozen or so feet deeper into a much larger chamber extending approximately 250 feet and averaging a width of 40 feet. Columns of connected stalactites and stalagmites braced the 30-foot span from floor to ceiling. One reporter noted a “delightful spring falling from the top of the cave” and the likelihood that removing earth would reveal further chambers.
Virtually nothing specific is known about the closure of English Cave. Paul Wack sold the property to his son in 1915 and by the early 1920s a local real estate company specializing in foreclosures was in possession of the old wine depot and the former tomb underneath. Sanborn Insurance Maps had detailed an “entrance to wine cave” on the property in their 1909 edition, but by the time the next version was drawn up in the 1930s, the cave entrance was no longer featured.
The majority of St. Louis caves were ultimately filled-in with the demolished parts of breweries above. But Paul Wack’s wine depot still stands above English Cave to this day. This has led many an obsessed city caver to an interesting conclusion regarding the fate of this particular void: in all likelihood the cave is still in the same state it was 100 years ago, simply plugged at the entrance. An archaeological tomb – closed-off but still there, in the quiet dark, waiting to be reopened.
Rothers, Preachers, and Would-Be Raiders
The modern obsession with trying to reopen the cursed English Cave goes back to the 1960s when Hubert and Charlotte Rother, two local amateur brewery historians, raised public awareness over the issue by-way of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on their efforts to manually access the old entrance shaft with a pick-axe. Many old-timers reading the article got in touch with the Rothers and shared their anecdotes of exploring the cave before it closed. These stories and exploits were the foundation for the Rother’s book “The Lost Caves of St. Louis”, which has since become a bit of a bible for those interested on the subject. Unfortunately, the Rothers were never able to generate enough interest to get any action taken to reopen the cave in their time.
Flash forward to the present day. English Cave remains as sealed as it ever was almost a century ago. And if the owner of the old Paul Wack wine depot continues to have his way, this lovers’ tomb is likely to stay sealed for the foreseeable future.
Those fascinated by the closed-off cave beneath their feet can only stand by and speculate as to what the chambers look and smell like. If anything of archeological value was left inside, it remains encapsulated. The same goes for anything supernatural. For now.