Going underground
Cave drivers go deep to make a living

By Terry Scruton
staff writer

It used to be that caves were the domain of a select few – brave explorers, coal miners, Batman.
These days, you can take walking tours and tram rides through many caves in the Midwest and South.

Heck, in some places, you can even drive a truck through them.

Missouri is one such place, loaded with caves that are used for underground storage, warehousing and even office space.

Drive down to Carthage and you can see the Carthage Underground, a 43-million cubic foot collection of marble quarries, most of which is owned by Americold Logistics. The quarries are home to warehouses and factories and even a USDA inspection facility.

Further north, up around Kansas City, MO, there are several underground storage areas to be found.

The Space Center in nearby Independence, for example, boasts 4.7 million square feet of industrial space, offices and light manufacturing.

But perhaps the biggest and most well-known is Kansas City’s SubTropolis, an industrial park with 5 million square feet of office space, warehousing and even a children’s museum.

The SubTropolis even offers storage for boats, RVs and some rather expensive automobiles. Look carefully and you may see the distinct outline of a Lamborghini beneath a tarp in one storage area.

SubTropolis, like many of these caves, started off as a limestone mine in the early part of the 20th century. Sometime in the mid-1960s, someone had the idea of turning the place into an industrial park.

Today, the facility is owned by Hunt Midwest, which was founded by the late Lamar Hunt, who also owned the Kansas City Chiefs football team.

That’s all well and good, but what is it actually like to drive in and out of these places? At first glance, taking a truck into a cave might not seem like a good idea to some.

A tight spot
Tim Basler, manager of sales and leasing for the SubTropolis, says a common reaction from drivers is that they aren’t sure if their trucks are going to fit when they get to the entrance tunnel. This, in spite of a sign in place that tells drivers exactly how high the tunnel is.

“You’ll see truck drivers, very, very rarely, but sometimes they’ll get out of their truck and scratch their heads and say can I really fit?” Basler said. “Well, it says (13 feet, 6 inches), so your truck’s going to fit. It stops people from time to time, but for the most part, it’s an easy in, easy out.”

Paul Davis, a trucker from Cadott, WI, has been driving in and out of the SubTropolis for about five years. And, while he doesn’t necessarily mind going into the cave, he said sometimes the tight spaces can be difficult to navigate.

“I think it’s kind of a pain because it’s small in there, tight, you know,” he said. “You’re always worried about hitting stuff with your trailer and that costs money.”

But, other drivers have a more positive view of the caves.

Dave Jungeblut, an OOIDA member from Sibley, MO, has been driving in and out of the caves, including the SubTropolis, for many years.

He says the confined spaces don’t worry him at all.

“Well, it’s obviously a confined area, which never really bothered me, other than having to work a little longer to get to the dock,” he said. “Other than that, on a nice day … you want to be out of there. But, on a day when it’s zero outside in a stiff breeze, it’s not a bad place to be.”

Going bump in the dark
Jungeblut said the secret to driving the caves is to just stay calm, no matter what happens.

And he said if you do happen to ding one of the many limestone pillars that hold up the ceiling, don’t panic. Because of the natural echo of the cave, it probably sounds a lot worse than it is.

“I’ll admit to bumping a pillar or rubbing one a time or two,” he said. “It resonates pretty good, like a huge barrel. In a confined space, it sounds that much more intense. It just sounds like you demolished a trailer, and you get out and look and you’ve got to look real hard to find a scuff.”

OOIDA member Tom Newman of Altamont, IL, is probably one of the more experienced cave drivers around.

He started driving into the SubTropolis early on in his career, hauling magazines to storage for a printing company.

Since then, he has hauled everything from dog food to boxes to retail merchandise in and out of the caves. Newman has plenty of advice for drivers who have never been in the caves before.

One of the most important things to remember, he said, is that if you leave your truck, take a flashlight, because if the power goes out, it can get mighty dark down there.

And if you do find yourself in the dark without a flashlight, Newman said the best thing to do is just sit down where you are and wait for the lights to come back on. No sense fumbling around in the dark and getting yourself lost.

Another bit of advice Newman offered was to be sure and send any Qualcomm messages you have – and wait for them to actually be transmitted – before you take your truck into the caves.

nce you’re down there, there’s no signal and, hence, no way to send messages back to the dispatcher.

An important tip, Newman said, is to know the scale of any map of the place you may see before you go in. Things on a map are not always as they appear in real life.

“Any maps you see in the caves, they’re greatly exaggerated,” he said.

“You look at a map and you’re thinking outside world map, where a block is a block. And you get inside there and it’s a lot more compressed inside the cave. You’ve got to take your time backing in.”

Patience is a virtue
But, all of those tips aside, Newman said the real key to driving in the caves is patience.

“There’s a lot more patience inside the caves,” he said. “People who have been there realize it. It’s not just wheel in, back in and you’re done. It’s a lot tighter. So you see a lot more help inside the caves than you will see anywhere else – people getting out and watching that pillar for you.”

There are other important things to remember before you go into the caves. There’s no idling, for one thing. The ventilation systems in most caves are good, but not good enough to handle the fumes and smoke from hundreds of trucks a day.

SubTropolis has signs posted everywhere to remind drivers of this all-important policy.

And if you’re going into the caves during the winter, Newman suggested that you may also want to pay close attention to your heated mirrors.

“One other thing I might tell people, especially, is to turn your heated mirrors off before you go in the cave,” he said. “Because if you’re outside and it’s 10 degrees and you’re going inside, you’re not going to see for a while if you don’t turn your heated mirrors off. They just fog over instantly.”
The bottom line, though, according to Newman, is that, although going underground may seem intimidating at first, it’s really not all that bad.

“You think it’s more challenging than it is,” he said. “It’s no more challenging than going inside a warehouse to back in. You run into the same problems in the caves that you do when you pull inside a warehouse. You’ve still got an enclosed area with posts and polls and things to back around.”

Davis put it even more succinctly.

“It’s an experience,” he said. “It’s worth doing once in your life, right?”

If you’d like to find out more about the caves, some of them have more information on the Web.
The Space Center can be found at www.spacecenterinc.com. For more information on the Carthage Underground, check out http://Americold.net.

And for pictures, video and more of what it’s like inside the SubTropolis, check out the Web site at subtropolis.net.