The Craziest Underground Stuff in Milwaukee (Like, Literally Underground)
If you think you've seen and done everything above ground in Milwaukee, then you need to start thinking below. MKE's underground is full of interesting spaces, including some you can rent, tour... and even bowl in. Here are some of the city's most intriguing (and creepy) underground spots.
There's a small lake on old maps of MKE just ashore of Lake Michigan Downtown. When urban development started building up the Downtown area, instead of draining Lake Emily, the Northwestern Mutual building at Wisconsin and Cass was built on top of it. The huge log pilings were driven into the lakebed and still support the building today. The water level is maintained by the building's facility team, because if the logs dry out, they'll rot and the building will fall. The only glimpse of Lake Emily now is through the small holes used for checking the water level.
UWM Utility Tunnels
Many students at UWM have probably heard rumors of a network of tunnels under the school campus, and they're pretty much all true. The tunnels, constructed in 1968, connect the various school buildings with the central heating and chilling plant. There are miles of pipe that run through them, carrying steam to heat the buildings and other utilities. The tunnels were inspected and repaired in 2010, so students can try to break into them for many years to come (not that we, uh, recommend this).
If you've taken the free Miller Brewery tours, then you're already familiar with these caves. They were carved out of the bluff in 1850, and when Frederick Miller started his brewery on the site in 1855, the caves came with the existing facility. Miller decided that the caves were ideal for storing his beer during the summer to keep it cool, lining the cave with blocks of ice. There were more caves originally, but all but the largest have been sealed (and we don't recommend trying to sneak in). You can even rent the space out... who wouldn't want to be gazed upon by the Miller High Life girl while they get married?
Fans of the paranormal are probably already familiar with Shaker's Cigar Bar. The building sits on top of an old cemetery, an eight-year-old girl died when she fell out of an apple tree on the property, a prostitute (of course the building used to be a brothel) was murdered in the penthouse, and two men were reportedly murdered in the basement of the building during prohibition. Every part of this building is deeply creepy, but it's the basement that even some employees refuse to go into. If you're curious, you can book a tour and explore the basement, its history, and the rest of the building too.
Storm drains and sewer tunnels crisscross the city, but there's an even bigger tunnel lurking beneath our feet: the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District deep tunnel. This controversial underpass was built in the '90s at an average depth of 300ft below ground. It's genuinely massive, with a diameter of 17 to 32ft, and it can hold hundreds of millions gallons of water. It was designed to prevent sewage overflows into Lake Michigan, which have decreased, but haven't stopped completely.
Though most Milwaukeeans know The Rave as a concert venue of dubious quality, the building started out life as the home of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles in 1927. Back then, it was kind of like a social club and YMCA all rolled into one, including a swimming pool and bowling alley, plus a basement utility area underneath it all. The pool and basement are still accessible, and there's plenty of rumors that touring rock stars demand to check them out. Mostly though, those who visit are ghost hunters looking for cheap thrills from mysterious orbs, unexplained static, and supposed whispers.
The chapel in Calvary Cemetery hides a crypt below ground. It was long forgotten when the chapel was closed for decades, but rediscovered when the building underwent renovations in the '90s. It has 45 spaces, all of which were intended for the entombment of MKE's Catholic clergy, but only one priest was ever buried there, a Father Tarasiewicza, who died in 1903. Why was no one else buried here? Who knows.
Downtown Steam Tunnels
It may seem archaic, but many of Downtown's buildings are still heated with steam. It's all produced by the We Energies Valley Power Plant just south of Downtown. Those steaming brick stacks you pass on the I-94 bridge over the valley? That's the plant. The steam is carried to the Downtown buildings it heats through pipes underground, which you can see above ground in one spot: inside the arch over Canal St under the freeway. The system then proceeds underground -- including under the river -- to Marquette, the Milwaukee Art Museum, MSOE, and its many other customers.
The land that is now Havenwoods State Forest in the north of the city has a storied history that includes a stint as a County House of Corrections in the early 1900s, Army disciplinary barracks for prisoners of war, and a Nike Ajax missile site in the '50s. It's no wonder then that there were tunnels dug under the park. While many of these had steam pipes, but it's not known when or why a lot of the tunnels were built. In the Army base days, it's likely tunnels connected barracks and other buildings with the Commandant's building. Don't get any urbex ideas, though: any tunnels that haven't already been sealed or destroyed are filled with asbestos.
Holler House Lanes
The basement of the Holler House on MKE's southside holds a (not-so-hidden) secret: the oldest sanctioned bowling lanes in the US. Just head down the stairwell lined with bowling trophies and check out the original wood lanes from 1908. If you partake, you'll have to keep score yourself... and don't forget to tip your pinsetters.
Sign up here for our daily Milwaukee email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in the Brew City.