ARTICLE

Underground tunnels in Iowa City brew dreams of historical attraction

Iowa State Archeologist Marlin Ingalls talks about the beer caves and tunnels that were part of the Union Brewery and still exist under the Brewery Square building Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 in Iowa City.  (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)
Iowa State Archeologist Marlin Ingalls talks about the beer caves and tunnels that were part of the Union Brewery and still exist under the Brewery Square building Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)

A spot of ice has formed where the asphalt sags in a parking lot east of Pagliai’s Pizza at 302 E. Bloomington St.

“You know what sinkholes are?” Iowa City archaeologist Marlin Ingalls asks. “Well, imagine having one in your parking lot. I don’t know if this goes to a tunnel. I don’t know if it goes to a well, a factory vat or a sewer system, but every year, it caves in, and they fill it back up.”

The answer may be tied to underground tunnels deep below three breweries that operated in the area in the mid-1800s. Two of them along Market Street — City Brewery and the Great Western Brewery — were demolished by the early 1960s.

One of them, the former Union Brewery, was restored in 1985 by Towncrest Investment Associates as part of a project that combined it with an adjacent historical structure. It became the Brewery Square building, which was acquired by developer Marc Moen in April 2000.

Moen recently sought out Ingalls, an employee of the Iowa State Archaeologist’s Office at the University of Iowa, to help Moen track down documents and photographs for an exhibit in Brewery Square’s lobby. Moen knew about multiple cellars beneath the building but had no idea there was a larger tunnel network.

When he found out, he began to share Ingalls’ obsession with it.

Moen, Ingalls and others are now interested in finding out the exact location of the tunnels, using remote sensing equipment, and determining a way to reopen them for tours. Some areas might even have potential for business uses, such as wine tastings by restaurants.

- Video by Brian Ray

“It’s too valuable of an asset, to interesting to just say, ‘It’s down there,” and let it go,” Moen said. “We’ve got to find the right people to make it work.”

Moen said an investigation a few years ago revealed that it would be possible to sink an elevator to the cellar levels, although the best location hasn’t been established. One elevator already goes to a cellar used by La’ James International College for its day spa in Brewery Square.

Finding a source of funds to excavate the tunnels wouldn’t be impossible, Moen said, adding that he’s willing to contribute.

The high cost of accessing the tunnels probably couldn’t be recovered directly with revenues from private tours or leases, Moen said. Rather, he said, the payback would come in bringing more visitors to this business district.

“It’ll help everybody’s interests,” Moen said.

Ingalls has been in the cellars under Brewery Square more than once, and Moen plans to join him on another visit soon. He said the cellars and tunnels are in good shape — damp, but without mold, vermin or dangerous decay.

Interpreting Iowa City’s beer history could be a huge attraction, said Doug Alberhasky, “the bier guy” at nearby John’s Grocery, 401 E. Market St.

Telling the story of Iowa City’s brewery history and how the tunnels were built in the days before electricity and power equipment could provide the kind of authentic experience that would wrest people away from their TV sets and computers, Alberhasky believes.

“That could be absolutely amazing,” he said.

Alberhasky said early Iowa City settlers came from Germany and Bohemia, bringing with them a knowledge of brewing and an appreciation of beer.

“They had the river for water. Malt grew very well here and hops grew OK, but they didn’t use as many hops back then, and they imported some of them. They had all the ingredients to make beer,” he said.

A history of the brewery district also could tell the convoluted story of Iowa’s prohibition laws, which eventually led the Union Brewery to switch to manufacturing carbonated beverages.

- Video by Brian Ray

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