Exploring the Culture of an Offbeat Passion
Every day I bike down Washington Ave. on my way home from class. Anyone who has done the same has probably noticed the giant mills on the other side of TCF Bank Stadium. They’re pretty hard to miss.
“…to the few people who still care about them, they’re known as Mill Hell.”
Those mills were once a part of the Southeast Minneapolis Industrial Area. Now they’re abandoned, and to the few people who still care about them, they’re known as Mill Hell. Those people are urban explorers.
Urban exploration (or urbex) is the act of exploring man-made structures that are generally abandoned or hidden from the public. Ranging from abandoned mills to houses to underground tunnels and caves, places to explore are never too hard to find. Minneapolis is well known in the urbex community for its huge number of extant abandoned mills, which can be found all over Minneapolis, from Calhoun to Bryn Mawr.
As one would imagine, abandoned buildings aren’t exactly safe. Left to rot by people who could no longer maintain them, these buildings have fallen to the forces of nature. Huge holes everywhere, potential asbestos, and floors coated in broken glass are just some of the results of years of hardly any human use. It’s wild how such a short amount of time can lead to the reclaiming of land by the earth. Often, buildings will be covered in vines, weeds will be growing through every crack, and animals can be heard roaming their empty halls.
The broken-down state of these buildings makes them extremely unsafe for people who enter them unprepared. In 2006, a girl was exploring the vacant Bunge grain elevator, a staple landmark of the Como neighborhood, with a friend when she fell 100 feet and died. She was there at night without a flashlight, further proving that without proper preparation, exploration is extremely dangerous.
Not only are these locations extremely dangerous to those who do not know how to properly navigate them – they are, for the most part, illegal to venture into. Trespassing charges are a constant threat.
Take, for example, one group of explorers whose adventure took a turn for the worse.
While exploring the area around a popular park, the group of urbexers (who wish to remain anonymous) happened upon some tunnels that led underneath one of Minneapolis’ famed abandoned flour mills. As they entered, the conditions they encountered were treacherous.
“We had to wear bandanas over our mouths,” one explorer said. “It was all we could do to at least try to save our lungs from being shredded by asbestos or whatever else was down there.” The caustic air was paired with pools of mercury, drug-using squatters, and the constant possibility of falling.
“The group had inadvertently broken into an active power plant.”
“It was actually quite challenging to walk along the ledge because there’s pillars that stick out from the wall that you have to bear-hug and swing around,” another explorer said, describing a catwalk path inside the building. “And if you fall, you fall into a bunch of shit water.”
The group eventually found what they believed to be the sub-basement of the mill. Rusting, old machinery was everywhere, left in place by those who had last worked the mill. It was an urbexer’s dream. The group left, returning multiple times over the course of a month to further their journey. Word spread to their friends, and soon enough they decided to bring a whole group of untrained teens along for the ride. This proved to be a fatal mistake.
After winding through the familiar trail for two hours, the group of twelve came upon the basement. Now bored of the same old location, the five original explorers searched for more. Stumbling upon a grate that appeared to block the entrance to more abandonment, they decided to proceed. After what seemed like hours of working with tools to open the grate, they entered into what they thought would be their next great adventure. Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite. Something wasn’t right – one explorer saw a fire extinguisher that he thought looked too modern. “I went to look at the service date and it said 2010. I was like, ‘Uh oh – we’re not in an abandoned area anymore, people are using this.’” They made their way into what appeared to be a huge warehouse. Within it was a pickup truck bearing the logo of a local power company. The group had inadvertently broken into an active power plant.
Alarms began to sound, and they panicked, scrambling out of the tunnels. “What took us about two hours coming in took ten minutes running back out,” said one explorer.
Upon exiting, they were greeted by thirteen squad cars and cops, who at the time didn’t even accuse them of breaking in. They were questioned, their info was taken down, and they were let go. Weeks later, members of the group were contacted by the authorities. Security tapes revealed the large group of explorers, and they were informed that charges would be pressed.
“It’s been about a year and a half since then, it’ll be two years this spring, so I don’t know if or when they’ll contact us further about the charges,” one said.
Most explorers go by a simple rule: if there isn’t an entrance already there, don’t make your own. It only contributes to the crumbling of buildings that they wish to maintain and can lead to even worse situations like this one. These explorers learned their lesson the hard way, but they definitely had fun doing it; facing these dangers is part of the whole experience.
“As photographers, their motto is “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”
Many, if not most, urban explorers are photographers, searching desperately for locations to capture or unleash their art. Abandoned buildings are just the place for them. Often holding a rich history, these buildings keep within them a spirit that transcends the physical structure itself. Flickr has a huge community of explorers from all over the world who post and share their art and love of dilapidated structures. The most active group on Flickr, called “Abandoned,” has 47,000 members and over 680,000 photos.
Being in a building that was once fully functional and important but is now forgotten is, in a way, like stepping into a piece of the past totally unaltered by men. It is not a museum. Its secrets are not hidden behind glass. Here one can find everything from old machinery to paperwork, furniture, and old advertisements. It’s fascinating to see all these things left as they were.
As a rule urban explorers try not to do anything to affect the state of the buildings. Graffiti is hugely prevalent, and though this art is often put up by respected local artists (i.e. Wundr in Minneapolis), many urbexers are opposed to how it spoils the history of sites. As photographers, their motto is “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”
Like any other subculture, urban exploration had its pioneers. In Minneapolis, the most notable group is Action Squad, who are considered to be the founding fathers and mothers of urbex in Minnesota. Founded at the University of Minnesota in 1996, the group, led by “Max Action,” ran an extremely detailed (though now slightly outdated) site documenting their adventures. On the site, this list of “the joys of Action Squad” can be found:
- “The sense of adventure inherent in not knowing what lies ahead
- The thrill of being where you’re not supposed to be
- The challenge of figuring out how to get there
- Indulging your appreciation for history, architecture, and non-standard notions of beauty
- Going where boring ‘normal’ people would never even dream of going
- Being in places that have not had human visitors in years
- Rare chances to appreciate little-seen architecture
- Using your wits to avoid detection/arrest (often narrowly)”
Today urbexers in the metro area are blessed with many more locations to explore. Father Hennepin Park by the Stone Arch Bridge is at the foot of the very historic and abandoned Pillsbury “A” Mill. People utilize this building frequently, even climbing to its roof to view Fourth of July fireworks. St. Paul is home to abandoned power plants, breweries, and defunct condo conversions like the Lowertown Depot, which is right on a wildlife refuge. Abbott Hospital, now in the midst of remodeling for Abbott Apartments, was a hugely popular location. Its remodel, though wonderful for the local community, is a loss for local explorers.
If there’s one thing to be said about urban explorers, it’s that they are passionate about what they do. It may be strange to spend copious amounts of time in abandoned buildings, but to them the journey through them is worth it.
Urban exploration will undoubtedly continue to grow and thrive in Minneapolis. As the city’s landscape continues to evolve, so will the local urbex community.