MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Before the Twin Cities had skyway systems or mega malls, we had tunnels. There are hundreds of them, with many of them man-made in the 1800s.

WCCO’s Jamie Yuccas had a rare chance to go inside the historic Pillsbury A Mill in Minneapolis. While it was dark and somewhat dangerous, the tunnel has a fascinating past and uncertain future.

Greg Brick explores tunnels and has delved deep into the subject for 20 years.

“The kind we’re going to be visiting today is a hydro power tunnel, and that was, interestingly enough, one of the very earliest kinds of tunnels. They predate the civil war in the St. Anthony Falls area,” said Brick.

With each step, there are new discoveries in the Flour Mill, which was built in 1881.

“A lot of times when (the tunnels) went out of use, as this one did, they were walled off, so people completely forgot about them” said Brick.

Once inside the belly of the building, Kit Richardson, an architect, is our guide.

“So, we’re now standing outside the building under Main Street and the tunnel is 660 feet long,” said Richardson, who said he feels connected to the first flour mill to ever be built by an architect.

The floor of the tunnel resembles a river bed. There are signs of life throughout the tunnel, including this underground garden we found where roots are actually growing through the ceiling.

“When the tunnel was closed off in ‘54-‘55, when they stopped using it for water power … there was a very small gate valve,” said Richardson.

That’s how fresh water creatures have ended up here, including freshwater clams, tiny shrimp and crayfish. Even a catfish was spotted.

The hydro power tunnel, used to obviously supply power to the mill, didn’t quite provide enough.

“The problem that Mr. Pillsbury learned very early on was that the river water … it was dependent on the climate and the weather,” said Richardson. “He very quickly decided, after buying the mill, that he needed another source of power, so he bought a steam plant and generated electricity.”

The maintenance on the tunnel was constant, however, meaning workers had to keep the turbines moving and make sure the flow of water to the drop shaft remained consistent.

The conditions were cold, damp and dark.

Standing inside, it’s hard to believe this type of space is not unique. Even with so many underground treasures in the Twin Cities, getting a glimpse into the mystery under our feet is exceptionally rare.

Comments (18)
  1. Matt says:

    Ms Yuccas,
    Even though your story and history about the A Mill tunnel was interesting and informative, I can’t help but think you were very lucky nothing happened to you while you were in it. As someone who is required to enter the Minneapolis tunnel systems on a regular basis, and have taken many people into them, I would NEVER have let you enter into that Tunnel without the proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) i.e Hard Hat, Safety Harness (In case you can’t get out on your own the fire department would have a way to rescue you), Goggles etc.,and neither would have any of my co-workers. You entered into a confined space, do know if any of the people you were with were confined space trained? Did you have to sign anything stating you understood the potential hazards? Did anyone have an air monitor, to test for hazardous atmospheric conditions while you were down there? And did someone stay up above to monitor if everything was going okay, because if something had happened to all of you while you were below ground, who would have notified Minneapolis Fire and Rescue? If you ever have to go into a confined space again, be it private or public, keep these things in mind, because these are OSHA regulations. If you ever have a true need to go into another tunnel in the City of Minneapolis contact the city’s Public Works – Surface Waters & Sewers department, again I’m thankful nothing happened to you while you were in the tunnel.

    1. Sue says:

      @Matt, you must have been a mamas boy

    2. Bpath says:

      What, is there a malfunctioning nuclear reactor down there or something? Sheesh! Calm down, killjoy! Very cool article! I wish I could see them myself.

    3. big banjo says:

      YO BUZZKILL….dont go out side because you might trip on a rock and skin your knee, dont get on a horse and go horseback riding because you might fall off and get hurt……now go back and get into your prius and buckle up good because you might get into a fender bender……i’ll bet your hands are as soft as a babies bottom and that IS NOT an admirable trait, at least for a man.

  2. Goob says:

    Good report Matt..Some people are naturally numb to what the dangers of confined space can be

    1. Sue says:

      @Goober I think I hear your mom calling you in for your bottle to.

  3. Sgt says:

    Way cool,Hope they are opened to the public. Heck I’d wear a brain bucket.

  4. Guido says:

    So Matt seems a lot of tough macho dudes didn’t appreciate your dissertation. yes sir tough guys for sure hacking away on their keyboards, sitting behind thief screens telling you what a candy a$$ you are. I would think they would have more macho things to do than read and type with those hands steel they must possess.

    1. Sue says:

      @Guido, Sorry Pal, Hey I just heard your mama calling you and Matt home

  5. Rufus Larkin says:

    They will become ‘apartments’ of smart homeless people.

  6. Ace says:

    The tunnels could be used as a nuclear fallout shelter

  7. Matt says:

    Sue, I’ve been in that tunnel It is amazing and it was a good story. Your life might not be worth $300 worth of prevention, but mine is, to my mama, my wife, my kids, and my grandkids, There are so many things that can happen down there I’m sure your immature and thought less thinking would never be unable come up with. And hey I hope no one from OSHA sees this report, because both the owners of the building and ‘CCO could get 50K fines each from OSHA for entering into a Confined Space without the proper equipment and notification. I was just trying to inform Ms Yucca as she was informing us. So If I’m a mama’s boy or whatever small minded insult you can come up with, so be it.

    1. Tunnels And Trains says:

      Soooooo….I take it train jumping is completely out with you?

    2. Dirk says:

      Matt: OSHA regulations apply to employees acting within their employers’ workspaces. You aren’t in violation of an OSHA regulation simply because you enter a dangerous area. Besides, the Pillsbury A-Mill is privately owned, so your concerns are admirable, but misplaced.