- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A woman looking for her wandering cat walked out one night last week near the old Lemp Brewery on St. Louis’ Near South Side and almost fell into a hole.

About 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep, the hole seemed too perfectly round to have occurred naturally, and she also noticed what appeared to be a small tunnel blocked partially by a wooden plank, extending off in one direction, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/2gER6Eh ) reported.

“There’s always been rumors that a house in this area, the 3300 block of Lemp (Avenue), had been part of the Underground Railroad,” said Jo Rukavina, who did eventually find her cat, Mr. Cat.

So she called her alderman, Kenneth Ortmann, D-9th Ward, and filled him in.

Ortmann said no determination has been made about the origins of the hole-slash-tunnel opening that Rukavina found, but he wanted to assure residents that it was not part of the Underground Railroad.

“Back in the late 1990s, early 2000s, there was some demolition going on in that area, and a neighbor complained that this area was part of” the system by which escaped slaves made their way to free states, he said.

So Chip Clatto, a teacher at Gateway Institute of Technology, conducted an archaeological dig on the lot of a demolished home at 3314 Lemp, Ortmann said.

Clatto and his team of high school students found items that were consistent with traditional African religious rituals. They also found a cowry shell, once used as currency in parts of Africa.

But they did not find a tunnel to Cherokee Cave, which has long been believed to be a main gathering point for runaway slaves who made it to St. Louis.

Ortmann said it’s likely that black people may have lived in the tiny one-room cottages (one still remains at 3318 Lemp), but that they inhabited the area after the Civil War.

“Evidence points to these little cottages being built for people who worked at the breweries around here, Lemp, Falstaff and Anheuser-Busch,” Ortmann said, adding “most likely blacks and German immigrants.”

Ortmann also pointed out that finding caves in that area of south St. Louis is not unusual, as it was the caves that drew German brewers to build near these geological voids that helped keep their beer cooler during summer months.

By 1860, as many as 40 breweries were clustered atop these limestone caves in south and central St. Louis. Where the Anheuser-Busch brewery is today, there were once five breweries nestled nearly side by side.

But none of these brewer’s caves can compare in fame to Uhrig’s Cave, which at one point was a nightlife hot spot.

Located below the southwest corner of Jefferson and Washington avenues, the cave was named for Franz and Ignatz Uhrig, German immigrants and brewers.

The Uhrigs bought the property, and the limestone cave beneath, in 1852. They spruced up the joint, extending the 40-foot-long cave to 210 feet, built up brick walls and arched ceilings. By the 1870s, it was the premier nightlife site in the city.

According to old newspaper articles, developing Uhrig’s Cave into a nightspot cost $100,000 in 1850s dollars (about $2.7 million today). The site also included a narrow-gauge railroad that ran underground from the cave to Uhrig’s Brewery at 18th and Market streets.

By 1900, the cave no longer drew drinking droves, and a roller rink and bowling alley followed, and quickly failed.

But the site was not dead yet. In 1908, developers built an exhibition hall, The Coliseum, which went on to host several presidential primaries and nationally known entertainers.

It closed in 1953 and was razed for construction of Jefferson Bank & Trust Co., where a protest in 1963 is considered to be a seminal event for civil rights in St. Louis.

___

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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