The cave system known today as the Cherokee Cave was formed at least a million years ago when slightly acidic rain water made its way into small cracks and fissures in the limestone bedrock. Over time, as the acid began to eat away at the limestone, larger channels were created, admitting more water and accelerating the formation of the cave. Geological features created in this manner are referred to as Karst Topography.
When the cave was first used by St. Louis Brewers in the 1840’s a great deal of it was filled with clay and other sediment that had been washed into it over the centuries. A small open portion of the cave was located under what is now the corner of Broadway and Cherokee Street. There is evidence that this small cave under the DeMenil property was leased by a brewery to produce a beer called Minnehaha, although production seems to have ceased by 1867.
Another larger portion of the cave was discovered nearby and was purchased by Adam Lemp in 1845 in order to further expand his brewing business. Adam’s original brewery was located downtown and the property on Cherokee was only used for storage and laagering. When Adam’s son William took over the operation in 1862 he began building a large brewery complex directly over the site of the cave.
The Lemp sections of the cave were altered and expanded for industrial use, so they appear less like a natural cave than you would expect. What one finds is a series of lagering rooms each separated from the other by masonry walls with large arched doorways. There are brick lined trenches in the floor designed to drain the excess water from the cave and ice holes in the ceiling used by workers to drop large quantities of ice into the cave, cooling it to the appropriate temperature for aging German Lager.
In later years, when beer production began to rely on machine refrigeration, the Lemp family, rather famously, used the caves as a source of entertainment. The remains of the theatre, used for family theatricals, lie under Cherokee Street and a once heated pool is now filled mostly with mud.
When the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1919, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, the Lemp Brewery floundered, unable to produce enough non-alcoholic products to stay in business. The Brewery Complex was finally sold to the International Shoe Company in 1922 and little is heard about the caves until they were opened as a tourist attraction in 1950.
The Cherokee Cave & Museum of Natural History
In 1945 Lee Hess purchased the DeMenil Mansion and the surrounding property including a building at the corner of Broadway and Cherokee Street which stood over the original entrance to the Minnehaha Cave. Hess’s intention was to turn the once brewery cave into a tourist attraction, but he wanted to highlight the natural rock formations in the unaltered part of the cave rather than the industrialized Lemp lagering rooms. In order to access these areas much of the clay blocking the passages needed to be removed.
When workers began to remove the clay they discovered a large deposit of animal bones. Hess, eager to make a great discovery, sent a letter and a sample of the bones to the American Museum of Natural History. What they had discovered was the skull of a prehistoric pig called a peccary (platygonus compressus).
Intrigued by the discovery of a large deposit of fossils in an urban area, the Museum’s Curator of Fossil Mammals, George Gaylord Simpson and another researcher George O. Whitaker traveled to St. Louis and spent several weeks retrieving, cleaning and cataloging over 3,000 fossils. You can read an article by George Simpson about the discovery here in Natural History Magazine.
As well as the natural beauty of the cave visitors to Hess’s Museum could enjoy a number of exhibits including the 1,000 year old Damascus Palace, which had been on display at both the 1893 Chicago and 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, and a collection of fossils found in the cave. The Museum remained open until 1960.
In 1961 the Missouri Highway Department purchased the property from Hess in order to continue the construction of I-55. A small portion of the cave, including the entrance used by the Museum, was imploded during the construction but most of it remains intact today.
The only access to the Cherokee Cave is a annual tour held by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis. Check out their events page for more information.