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Adventure on Bassett's Creek

by Matt Bergstrom

It was a clear Sunday afternoon as the Madame Curie slipped from the dock at Boom Island Park and Marina in Nordeast Minneapolis. In her bow was my fellow explorer, Peter Koontz, and I in the stern. Out from the harbor, past the small "lighthouse" and onto the Mississippi, we paused to watch the stately Anson Northrup steam upriver, decks brimming with tourists. Soon we saw our destination, a dark hole of a ravine cutting inland from the bank on the opposite shore. We entered the shallow backwater, a haven for fishermen for many years, and continued up the winding channel. Suddenly, from behind an overhanging branch, we say what we had come to see. The ancient, magnificent stone arch of a tunnel loomed up ahead, fifteen feet high and twenty wide. Here, at long last, we had discovered the entrance to Bassett’s Creek.

In actuality, the entrance is really the exit for the creek as it joins forces with the Great Mississippi. The last mile and a half of the creek’s eighteen-mile voyage is all underground. From its beginning at Medicine Lake, the creek winds and lazes its way through Wirth Lake and park and then a last residential area before it enters a heavily industrial area just north of downtown Minneapolis. Here is where it enters the shadow world, domain of the elusive lemurians. From this point on, few know the ways by which the once laughing little creek travels until it finally reappears and then quickly disappears again into the swelling river.

After some momentary difficulties with shallow rocks at the entrance of the tunnel, we paddled the canoe cautiously into the closing stygian gloom. Overhead, original limestone blocks of the eighty-year old vaulted ceiling, like an ancient castle dungeon, held back the earth, streets and buildings above. We removed a flashlight from our swag bag and lit up the tunnel ahead. As we approached the end of a long straight section of tunnel. We began to hear low roaring or rushing sound. Was it only the wind reverberating against the walls? Or was it a large waterfall just around the bend, waiting to sweep us into its great maw down into a stony gullet?

Carefully we crept up to the corner, with a safe distance from the wall in case we needed something to pull us back from an strong currents. The light bounce around the walls past the bend. We saw nothing, and yet the rushing noise grew louder. Around several more twists we crept, peeking around each turn carefully. The noise had grown to a deafening roar when we finally saw it. A fifteen-foot cataract dropped straight down from the ceiling into the middle of the tunnel. We turned out the light and discovered the waterfall was glowing from within, illuminated by a manhole just above it. We squeezed the boat to the left side, against the wall, mere inches from the torrent, and passed the first obstacle.

Just as we congratulated ourselves for this success, we realized that another roar was coming just ahead. We paddled forward, scanning the tunnel with the flashlight for the source of the noise. This time the waterfall was completely dark, shrouded in a mist which made it impossible to see until we were nearly upon it. A clear pathway to the right of the shower, however, enabled us to pass this one without too much trouble. After dodging a small sprinkling pipe farther on, the passage zig-zagged to the right and entered a sort of long hall of pillars. The left wall here did not reach the ceiling, betraying some sort of space behind. We discovered a rickety wooden ladder leading over the wall but decided to climb it on the return voyage. Soon the tunnel came to a division. Straight passages led ahead side by side. We chose the right passage on a whim and continued for only a short distance before becoming stranded on a sandbar. We decided to try the left passage and hope for deeper water, so we backtracked to the fork.

Suddenly the light went out. No amount of shaking or fiddling with the battery would light it up again. It was only then that we realized how ill-prepared we were. We attempted to use a camera flash to see ahead but this only made matters worse. Grimly, we attempted to turn around and head in a direction we thought led out. Blundering our way down the tunnel, suddenly Peter felt a sprinkling on the bow. The canoe lurched forward and caught on a sandbar, the small shower pouring, for the most part, on top of my head. Though it was only a small rain compared to the falls ahead, it was large enough and worse—it was quite warm! Thoughts raced in my head of where warm water could come from and what strange factory might be above us as I shouted, "Its pouring on my head! and its warm!" The roaring and echoing of the tunnel drowned out any coherence in what I said, so, not understanding exactly what was happening, Peter jumped out onto the sandbar and pulled us free. After only a moment to relax Peter shouted "Ahh! Its right beside me, paddle quick!" And so paddle quick we did, halfway beside, halfway through the dark waterfall. The true value of a glowing waterfall was demonstrated as we passed this easily and then headed on. After feeling around a few turns we saw light ahead! The roar and terror of the tunnel behind us now, we emerged into light, quiet and relief from the tension. Only a few of the fishermen looked up in wonder at the bedraggled adventurers who had suddenly appeared from the tunnel.

In several later expeditions, we headed farther and farther up the tunnel, only to return to the entrance. Kristin Hofer and Pat Kelley helped to push on up the tunnel. At last, after a three-hour journey, on our last expedition, we reached the far end of the tunnel. At an unknown strip of green in North Minneapolis we ate cookies to celebrate getting past the monster carp, several log jams, the crickets and spiders, sandbars and odd side passages.

The tunnel was started in the 1910s and completed in the late 1920s. Originally judged on of the most beautiful creeks in the area, Bassett Creek by the 1890s and industrialization of it’s banks was one of the most polluted. In an effort to contain the awful sights and smells of the blighted stream, sections were covered over one by one until the burial was complete. Now forgotten in its seventy-year old tomb, the creek makes little news, unknown by even the people who live and work above it. In the early seventies a small campaign to unearth the creek and turn it into a parkway brought little interest because of its price tag, and sot it is still forgotten.

As sections of the tunnel are quite old, the Army Corps of Engineers has doubts that they will hold up in a heavy flood, so a bypass through downtown is now under construction. It appears that this will be the fate of Basset Creek, to be shut up in a smelly hole forever. Perhaps when the new tunnel is complete and the old one blocked up it will be a boring one too.


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Matt Bergstrom