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Historic Wabasha Street Caves In St. Paul Begins New Chapter

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- From swing dancing to disco, and gangsters to ghosts, there's a place in St. Paul that's had it all. And now it's beginning a new chapter.

In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen takes us to the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul.

"It just holds a very special place in my heart. And it's classy," said owner Faith Pon.

If ever there was a cave that was classy, this would be it. The sandstone tunnels and corridors that wind along Wabasha Street got their start as a silica mine in the 1850s. A few decades later, the business evolved from mining -- to mushrooms.

"This was actually the first commercial mushroom-growing operation in the entire United States," said tour guide Deborah Frethem.

Wabasha Street Caves
(credit: CBS)

But in the Prohibition-era 1920s, the fungi operation gave way to just plain fun. Owners Josephine and William Lehmann started a speakeasy. Then they took it up a notch when they opened Castle Royal.

"Opened on Oct. 26, 1933," Frethem said.

Frethem has been a tour guide at Wabasha Street Caves for about 20 years. One of her specialties is the gangster tour where she gets into character.

"I play Nina Clifford, who was the high-class madam here in St. Paul from 1888 to 1929. Forty years in an illegal business for a woman in a man's world. She was doing all right," Frethem said.

Clifford was one of many unforgettable characters from that era, back when St. Paul was the epicenter for the motorized bandits of the 1930s. Police chief John J. O'Connor gave the historic gangsters a safe-haven in the city, as long as they behaved.

"John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson, did they set foot in there?" WCCO's John Lauritsen asked Frethem.

Wabasha Street Caves
(credit: CBS)

"Yes. Dillinger I can prove," she said.

Frethem believes Dillinger visited the caves at Castle Royal more than once. By then, the tunnels were filled with the sound of swing bands and dancing.

"They called it 'the finest underground night club,'" said Faith Pon.

Pon bought the caves a couple months ago and is continuing that swing dance tradition on Thursday nights.

"It's happy music," Pon said. "It was the 'Roaring Twenties,' and I hope, I believe that we're gonna have another roaring 20s, post-COVID."

Being the new owner of an historic cave means a crash course on its hidden history. There are bullet marks in the fireplace, the result of a gangster shootout that happened 100 years ago.

And then there are ghost sightings, something employees have grown used to over the years. Frethem was a skeptic when she first started. Not anymore.

Wabasha Street Caves
(credit: CBS)

"After working here for two decades, believe me I'm a believer. I've seen a ghost. Way in the back," said Frethem.

It's a place with countless stories. And no doubt many are still waiting to be told.

"It's all about memories. It's about remembering the past and making new memories," Pon said.

The Wabasha Street Caves were also a disco for a while in the 70s.

There are a number of different tours you can take at the caves and you can find out more here.

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