Ghosts, gangsters and more — a closer look at one of St. Paul’s spookiest spots

The Wabasha Street Caves are rich in history and ghostly lore, making them the perfect place to check out during October.

Tour+guides+Brett+Williams+and+Deborah+Frethem+pose+for+a+portrait+in+front+of+the+Wabasha+Street+Caves+on+Saturday%2C+October+9.+The+caves+that+closed+due+to+COVID-19+have+recently+re-opened+and+are+now+offering+historical+tours+and+swing+nights.

Ava Kian

Tour guides Brett Williams and Deborah Frethem pose for a portrait in front of the Wabasha Street Caves on Saturday, October 9. The caves that closed due to COVID-19 have recently re-opened and are now offering historical tours and swing nights.

by Macy Harder

A gangster’s safe haven, a speakeasy, a mushroom farm and a discreet underground nightclub: the Wabasha Street Caves have filled many roles over the last century, each with its own haunting history preserved within the sandstone walls.

The caves recently reopened under new ownership and their legacy lives on through tours and events that give visitors a glimpse of eras past. But this history lesson has a chilling twist: from unexplainable whispers to guests from the “other side,” ghost stories and sightings are plentiful at this St. Paul site, making it the perfect place to explore during the month of October.

The man-made caves were originally constructed in the 1800s, when the area was mined for silica to be used in glass manufacturing. Left with a cool, damp interior, the caves were later transformed into a mushroom farm, informally known as Mushroom Valley.

In the early 1930s, construction of the infamous Castle Royal Nightclub began inside the caves. It became a sort of safe haven frequented by Minnesota’s most notorious gangsters, among them John Dillinger, Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, “Baby Face” Nelson and others.

But the mobsters no longer run the show at the Wabasha Street Caves. Instead, their stories and history are preserved by the caves’ passionate tour guides, owners and guests who come ready to learn.

Faith Pon, the new owner, purchased the caves at the end of September 2021. She fell in love with the historic site when she started visiting back in the late 90s, and was devastated to find out the caves had closed due to COVID-19. But it inspired her to act.

“I reached out and found out they were for sale, and haven’t really looked back since,” she said. “It was a no brainer for me.”

Since reopening, the caves have brought back some of their traditional events. Historic Cave Tours are offered weekly on Saturdays and Thursdays, and they’re gearing up for their St. Paul Gangster Tour on October 16. The dance floor opens up on Thursday nights for weekly Swing Nights, where live music and swing dancing lessons will be provided. The full event calendar for the caves can be found here.

Right now, they’re also offering the Lost Souls Tour, which focuses solely on ghostly happenings and stories from inside the caves. These will take place on the last three Sundays of October, and they’re a great way to get in the Halloween spirit.

“The caves are definitely haunted,” Donna Bremer, former co-owner of the Wabasha Street Caves, said. “Everybody that’s worked here has had an experience … and we find that the spirits get more active in October for some reason.”

For tour guide Brett Williams, ghostly encounters are an everyday occurrence. “There will be whistling, there will be footsteps, it’s bizarre,” he said. “I’ve never seen ghosts so bold.”

On the Historic Cave Tour, Williams recounted tales of flickering chandeliers, spirits seen walking through walls and other spooky happenings. At one point, he paused to get a better listen in a dark corner of the cave, alleging he had just heard someone tossing stones around behind him.

For those who aren’t interested in the paranormal side of the tour, the caves still have plenty to offer.

“It’s just the most beautiful, inspiring place … I’ve loved it from the minute I walked in the door,” said Deborah Frethem, another of the caves’ tour guides. “The sense of history here emanates from the walls.”

Tammy Miller was visiting from Ohio and attended a tour of the caves one Saturday morning. Miller is interested in history and true crime, and she wanted to learn more about the cave’s history with gangsters.

“I saw that it reopened again, and I was just like, we are going,” Miller said. “I don’t care what the weather is like—whatever we gotta do, we’re coming here.”

Whether it’s the unique history or the ghostly lore that piques your interest, exploring the caves will be an experience you won’t forget.

“It’s all about letting legends live on,” Williams said. “Memories are made here.”