Discovery of Cape 'tunnel' proves to be beer cellar

Friday, January 21, 2005

There were plenty of rumors brewing Thursday about a "tunnel" uncovered near Morgan Oak Street in Cape Girardeau.

County health officials initially called it an old tunnel. There was speculation that it extended under Morgan Oak and might be part of the Underground Railroad effort to help runaway slaves in the 1800s.

But a closer inspection by city planning staff and historic preservation consultant Terri Foley concluded Thursday that the hole -- covered by a heavy sheet of metal -- was a huge sandstone cellar which once housed large beer vats for a brewery that stood at the corner of Morgan Oak and Middle streets.

And it was a part of the city's commercial history -- perhaps more than a century old -- that resurfaced thanks to simple concerns about where a proposed restaurant planned to place its Dumpster. A trash hauler said it wouldn't drive its heavy trucks over a concrete slab at 435 Morgan Oak St. because of the possibility that the slab, which covers the cellar, might collapse.

"We just have to pour a pad to set our Dumpster somewhere else," said Charles Hammonds, who is helping a friend renovate a former barbecue place for use as a new carry-out restaurant.

Foley and Brenda Schloss, senior planning technician for the city, got a glimpse of the dark cellar by raising the metal covering. But the metal panel remained bolted on one end, making it hard to see far into the underground structure.

Foley said beer cellars once were common. They often were well constructed, with quality stone or brick craftsmanship.

"There's no telling how many there were over town," Foley said.

Still, Foley said she likes to see historic structures preserved where possible.

The brewery's storage area covered a two-story area underground, according to Southeast Missourian accounts dating back to the 1930s.

Schloss said the beer cellar hasn't been recognized as a local landmark by the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

Even if it were, city planner Kent Bratton said, such a designation wouldn't guarantee the preservation of the cellar.

The property owner, Southeast Missouri Builders Supply, can do what it wants with the cellar, he said. "Our ordinance doesn't prevent you from tearing it down," Bratton said.

The brewery was erected in 1876 by George Henninger and had a succession of owners over the years. The Cape Girardeau Brewery and Ice Co. in pre-Prohibition Days was one of the largest between St. Louis and Memphis, according to newspaper accounts.

A fire destroyed much of the plant in 1930, but it was subsequently rebuilt and began brewing beer again in 1933 following the end of Prohibition. The brewery closed in 1940.

All that's left now is a cavernous beer cellar.

335-6611, extension 123

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