A Cherokee Street Adventure Story

Inside second lagering cellar with destroyed, giant beer barrel.
-----

Jason from KAMP here. Enjoy this tale of how my friend, Chris Naffziger, tried to feed me to C.H.U.D. When you are done, stop around the corner from KAMP and enjoy a cold one at Earthbound Beer.

It was cool, but not cold outside when a writer for a regional magazine contacted me to discuss the possibility of photographing a renovation project underway in South St. Louis City. The writer, Chris, only asks for my help when something about the assignment he is working on makes photography difficult. That said, the shoots are always interesting, and usually provide once-in-a-lifetime access to some site of significance. What can I say, he has a way.

Based on the explanation Chris gave, I knew that the story would be about a brewery’s work converting a building that was once one of the city’s preeminent breweries back over to that purpose. The project, of Earthbound Beer, had been underway for a short time, and the history angle sounded promising to me. 

The night before the shoot, I packed my kit: two cameras, lenses, a single flash (I expected to encounter a work site where lighting would be present), and some miscellaneous things that always live in my bag (flashlight, first aid, etc.). The day of the shoot, a light rain had formed, so I threw in a jacket that I often use while shooting because of its plethora of pockets.

We met in the space that Earthbound had grown up in until that time, a long, narrow, enclosed alley that had once served as the horse carriage turnaround for a massive complex, nearly a full city block in scope, which the brewery building that I was yet to photograph helped to anchor. It is important to note that at this time in St. Louis’ history, it was one of America’s largest urban centers (ranking as high as the 4th most populous city in several censuses), and was one of the top choices for German immigrants coming to the U.S. in the 19th Century, whose influence would mark it as one of this country’s great beer cities. Of particular interest to us was several lagering cellars deep underground, fully preserved, if only because they had become lost in time. 

Entrance to the first basement was through a small metal hatch in the floor of the back room of a Somali grocery store. As soon as it opened and I saw the extension ladder submerging into pure darkness, I knew that this was going to be an adventure. I also knew that I was in trouble with only that single handheld flash and the dinky plastic flashlight that I brought with me.

-----

Ladder extending from Somali Grocery Store to first basement.

-----

First basement, prior to renovation.

-----

First basement of Earthbound Beer, post renovation.

-----

First basement side room prior to excavation. 

-----

First basement side room during excavation.

-----

First basement side room post excavation.

-----

Descending the ladder led into a cavernous room that today holds Earthbound’s three walk-in coolers, brewing tanks, and rows upon rows of beer kegs. It’s the heart of their operations, yet somehow it seemed even bigger with no light. With Chris and I, were two of the owners of Earthbound, who despite having already sunk an inflatable kayak in the abyss we were about to crawl into, seemed convinced that we’d be ok. As they pumped up our transport, Chris and I peered down another hatch in the back of the lightless room. “Jason, you are going to have to do this on your own,” Chris said. “I’ll never make it down that ladder.” He was referring to the fully extended, extension ladder (or perhaps two single-span ladders roped together in the middle with wire- either way, they were WIRED together in the middle) that myself, the two brewery owners, and a kayak were meant to scale down on. The bottom of the ladder plunged into water, a portion of the subterranean lake waiting for us to explore.

-----

Ladder down to second basement, with kayak (EB owners Rebecca and Stuart pictured).

-----

“How deep is the water?” I asked. No one knew exactly. 

My camera pack was too cumbersome to attempt to take it with me (and I was half-convinced that I was about to go swimming anyway), so I unpacked one camera, a couple of lenses, the flash and the flashlight, and stuffed the pockets of my jacket with them. While one of the Brewery owners steadied the kayak, I descended the ladder, which pitched violently back and forth under my weight, with one hand on the rungs and the other clutching my tripod.

Getting onto the kayak from the ladder was about as graceful a transition for me as those first few steps a giraffe takes after being born. I made it onboard though, and somehow remained mostly dry. 

All around us, darkness swallowed everything beyond the narrow beam of our flashlights. 

Giving the ladder a push, we glided through an arched doorway, and in front of us, extended a long barrel-vaulted room. I shined my light into the water and could see the bottom, though it was impossible to tell exactly how far away it was (turns out that it was probably around 6’). We decided to do a little exploring before I made any images. We knew that this large room had at least one matching it just parallel, but to access it, we had to lay down on our backs and use our hands to pass our way through the top of a tunnel connecting the two. In doing so, my hands likely made contact with masonry that has not seen humans pass beneath it for over a century. The stone of the passageway ceiling was cold and slick.

After paddling around for a while, we set our sights on a small island of rubble peaking just out of the water’s surface in the original room. It is thought that this debris is all that’s left of the original brewery’s buildings that were demolished (less expensive to dump the rubble into the underground cellars than to have it carted away). Getting closer, we had to be careful to keep the kayak from rubbing against the jagged detritus to prevent a puncture (how the the earlier raft had sank). So, my dismount onto the mound required a bit of a leap of faith, and I sunk up to the knees on my first step. It was a terrifying feeling, not knowing the stability of the pile of debris I was standing upon or the depth of the water at that time.

I soon freed myself from the muck, and managed to scramble up on top of the pile. From there, using long exposures and a single flash to paint the light, I shot my first serious images of the subterranean lagering cellars under Earthbound Beer. It is possible that these are among the first photographs ever made from down there.

-----

View from atop rubble island, second basement lagering cellar.

-----

Getting back to the ladder and up to safety was just as dicey, but something felt familiar about it this time. 

Since that day, I’ve returned on three more occasions to photograph both the lagering cellars, which I was eventually able to explore wearing waders after the water was drained, and the progress of the Brewery’s growth (it is now open to the public and expanding again). Chris continues to call me up when unusual projects become impossible ones, and our recent assignment is exploring the complex of another massive, former brewery not far away, including the cave system that lies beneath it.

-----

After the subterranean lake was drained.

-----

-----

-----

Views of completed brewery (above three images).

-----

EB Owners Jeff and Stuart.