Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The conversion of St. Paul

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THOMPSON submachine-gun bul­let holes pock mark the fireplace mantle. I run my fingers along the holes, amazed and wondrous about what happened here many decades ago.

No, this is not an old war zone -- this is the Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul, Minn. -- a city that too often gets overlooked by tourists who flock across the mighty Mississippi River to neighbouring Minneapolis. St. Paul deserves equal attention. It's a Midwestern gem.


I am enjoying a fascinating tour of the caves carved out of sandstone near the mighty Mississippi River that winds between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The bullet holes are the result of a shooting that took place in the 1930s during the days of infamous gangsters John Dillinger and Al Capone. According to the colourful tour guide, one night, a card game in the Castle Royal nightclub built in the caves ended brutally with one of the gangsters unleashing his Thompson submachine-gun and spraying his three victims with hot lead.


A cleaning woman saw the carnage, called St. Paul police and was told to sit tight, which she did for well over an hour.

But the St. Paul police department was full of corrupt officers and by the time the woman re-entered the cave, the blood had been cleaned up, the bodies removed, and other than the bullet holes, there was no trace of a crime. As for the cleaning woman, she was scolded for "falsely" reporting a crime.

But that wasn't the end of that. According to the tour guide, every few years someone reports seeing a man with a wide-lapel suit walking through walls or sitting at the 20-metre-long bar. Tourist photos sometimes reveal shadowy, ghost-like figures. Very spooky!

The Wabasha Street Caves tour is well worth doing and its criminal past is only a small part of its history. The sandstone was discovered in the 19th century to be silica-based -- perfect for glass-making and for decades the glass produced there was used on buildings from the Twin Cities all to way to Winnipeg. Henry Ford built an auto plant in St. Paul in the 1920s because of the windshield glass source nearby.

The caves, with their dark, cool, damp conditions and steady temperature, have also been used for mushroom production and cheese and wine storage, among other capitalistic enterprises. The Castle Royal nightclub was opened during prohibition in the 1920s and had its own whiskey still and bathtub gin. The club was frequented by the area elite and the St. Paul police chief of the day invited Chicago gangsters to hang out with the proviso that they spend money but commit no crimes in St. Paul. Crime bosses such as Capone, Dillinger, Myer Lansky, Bonny and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson did just that. Musical performers such as Tommy Dorsey and Cab Calloway entertained the crowds. Those were heady days.

These days, only legal activities take place in the caves. The tour is, of course, one of those activities. If you're into swing dancing with live music or private parties, the club is available. The 20-metre mahogany bar, paid for by Anheuser-Busch, is a lovely feature. Go to www.wabashastreet.caves for more information.

St. Paul is loaded with other fascinating activities. It is very family friendly and walkable, with most features only a few blocks away from the other.

Spend a few hours at the Science Museum of Minnesota across from the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild. The museum overlooks the Mississippi River. The six-level museum includes fascinating exhibits on the Mississippi, the human body, dinosaurs and fossils and experiments. Many of the exhibits are interactive and there is a souvenir shop, family restrooms, lockers and strollers for rent. There is also an Omnitheater with a convertible giant domed movie screen. Starting June 12, the museum will feature a Titanic exhibit.

The museum contains an interpretive centre for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which is part of the U.S. national park systems. Established in 1988, the recreation area includes 115 kilometres of the Mississippi River stretching from the cities of Dayton and Ramsey to just south of Hastings, Minn. If you're interested in geography or history, the interpretive centre is a must-see.

Partly due to industry, and partly due to agricultural effluent flowing from area tributaries, the Mississippi, like the Red River, has suffered over the decades. However, as the interpretive centre points out, efforts to clean the river have paid off and there are now two dozen edible fish species in the Mississippi, compared to only three a mere 25 years ago.

Here's a tour that will warm the heart of thrifty Winnipeggers -- a free zoo. Yes it's true -- you can visit the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory absolutely free 365 days a year. Do you miss Assiniboine Park Zoo's dearly departed Debby the polar bear? Check out Como zoo next spring (2010) when its two polar bears, Buzz and Neil, temporarily housed in Detroit, will be back in the zoo's brand new, state-of-the-art polar bear enclosure. Right now, the zoo's highlights include huge lowland gorillas and orangutans, including a cute-as-a-button baby orangutan. Como also has large cats, a bird exhibit, aquatic animals, butterfly exhibit and plenty of enclosed gardens with tropical foliage.

Want to keep your kids happy? Take them to the Minnesota Children's Museum. It's in downtown St. Paul and has tons of interactive activities for the kids including play construction sites and a village with pretend restaurant, medical clinic, post office and transit bus the kids can pretend to drive. The interactive music studio is especially fun. Join with your kids by playing a pretend instrument and watching yourselves dance and sing on a special-effects screen that makes you look like you're in a rock video.

For a delicious meal, check out Pop!! (Yes it has two explanation points. The other Pop! in the Twin Cities has only one.) It's a great downtown St. Paul restaurant with unusual foods such as pork asado, aji-ahi tuna burgers and chicken posole soup. The fruit drinks are a blast. Try the Peach Nehi, Jones fufu berry or Jarriots. The non-alcohol drink list is endless, as is the alcoholic drink list. It's family friendly, too, with a full children's menu featuring items such as chicken toes (it's what they call chicken fingers), pizza and macaroni.

Afterwards, stroll a few metres down the street and sample the delicious sweetness of chocolate, candy and flavoured popcorn treats at Candyland.

Downtown St. Paul has fabulous cultural and theatre events. This summer, from July 3 to 26, take in Cirque du Soleil's Kooza under the Grand Chapiteau at the Broadway/Kellogg lot in the Lowertown neighbourhood. The Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) seats more than 2,600 people with an adjoining tent. There is a children's discount for kids ages two to 12, and children under two get in free, although they must sit in their parent's lap. Ticket prices range from US$42 to US$215. For more information call 1-800-678-5440.

Another cultural gem is the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, featuring musical theatre, music and dance. It is the home of the Minnesota Opera, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Schubert Club.

For more information on what to see and do in St. Paul, visit the Landmark Center, a beautiful downtown building that was originally a federal court that featured famous gangster trials in the 1930s, including a trial for John Dillinger's girlfriend who was tried as an accessory. The Landmark Center offers plenty of friendly help to tourists and is open seven days a week.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2009 E1

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