Risking lives to find beauty in the mysterious

Urban explorers have seen beneath the city streets and behind the doors of abandoned buildings.

Chelsie Hanstad

There are places in every city, such as abandoned buildings, tunnel systems and bridges, that the general public has forgotten or ignored.

But there are people who seek out these places to see what is there.

They call themselves a variety of names – spelunkers, infiltrators, urban adventurers and urban explorers – and they can be found all over the world.

Action Squad, one of several Twin Cities urban exploration groups, was formed at the University while trying to map the steam tunnels.

The tunnels connect buildings throughout campus and are closed to the public.

The tunnels are hazardous, said Jerome Malmquist, University director of energy management.

Malmquist also said there is a high probability trespassers in the steam tunnels will get caught.

The point of the activity is to go where no one else has been in the spirit of exploration.

“We go to places of strange, perverse, off-beat beauty, or places of esoteric, historical interest, then take pictures, explore every last inch and revel in the beauty,” said Mike Gilday, a photographer who has found subjects on many urban exploration missions.

Armed sometimes with flashlights and cameras, other times with more sophisticated equipment such as climbing harnesses, ropes, rubber boots and gas masks, the urban explorers of the Twin Cities region have seen what is beneath the city streets and what lies behind the doors of abandoned buildings.

“Many people drive, walk and bike past the mouth of the Phalen Creek tunnel, and the few that really notice it probably complain that it is an eyesore and it smells bad. Yet that mud-filled tunnel mouth leads to one of St. Paul’s most beautiful and historically interesting drain tunnels,” Gilday said.

Explorers find these places through other explorers, through newspapers and sometimes “through sheer luck,” Gilday said.

If a site is interesting, explorers will often return more than once.

“I could probably spend a 40-hour work week in the Labyrinth taking pictures and still not exhaust the possibilities,” Gilday said.

There is always the chance of being electrocuted, asphyxiated, crushed to death, drowned or otherwise injured.

“On one of my trips into the Labyrinth, someone said, ‘If you critically injure yourself, all we can do is keep you company until you die,’ ” Gilday said.

The Labyrinth is an interconnected network of seven tunnels beneath downtown St. Paul. There is no way to get a stretcher out of it, meaning there is not much help for explorers if they become injured.

Other bodily risks include becoming ill from exposure to waste, sewage or chemicals; and rusted manhole rungs that have deteriorated enough so they will no longer support weight.

For those with a desire to see what is beneath the surface or off the beaten path, the risk of injury is worth it.