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Omaha Magazine

The Lincoln Underground

Feb 24, 2023 10:14AM ● By Jonathan Orozco
Joel Green

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Like a lot of people living in Nebraska, I’d never heard of Lincoln’s Robber’s Cave—the very naiveté Joel Green, a school teacher turned historian, laments. I met him to tour the site, along with visitors from across the country, at an unassuming event hall in downtown Lincoln. 

One would never guess by the polished, contemporary architecture that a cave containing hundreds of years of history opened directly below. Yet, tourists from Idaho, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Missouri filled out my group—in compliance with local fire code, the tours are limited to 30 individuals per hour-long outing. Still, I was surprised to learn I may well have been the only Omaha resident in tow. 

“Cave tours are everyday, and most of the visitors come from out of town and out of state. They find Robber’s Cave Tours on Google, Trip Advisor, Yelp, and are drawn to the 5-Star reviews,” Green explained. “It doesn’t surprise me that many locals might not have heard of the cave because it was a vacant, dilapidated property for decades.”

As awareness has spread, the 5,000-square-foot cave has garnered intrigue from outside the state, even internationally; Green listed people from Armenia, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Germany, and as far-flung as New Zealand as previous visitors. However, one could posit the apparent ignorance of the site by locals is feigned—the cave purportedly hosted a number of underground (and unauthorized) keggers and concerts prior to receiving more vested academic scrutiny.

Thankfully, due to the site’s largely artificial mid-19th-century construction, there’s little concern regarding damage to the (distant) archaeological record.

“There’s a lot of natural sandstone caves along rivers, but a lot of time they’re on private property,” Green noted. “Fifty miles to the south is Indian Cave State Park, and that’s really more like a big cliff because the cave portion was closed off long ago because of the Native American petroglyphs. If we were to ever find Native American petroglyphs in the cave, I think it would be closed off.”

Returning to the tour, I found myself quickly immersed by the site’s history as our group entered the cave proper. Every square inch of the cavern’s soft, Dakota sandstone walls are carved with symbols, signatures, band names, an Egyptian sphinx with an appropriately eroded nose, and curiously common, word puzzles. 

The mouth of the cave is naturally formed, but a large section was hand-carved by a German immigrant named Jakob Andrä between the years 1869 and 1873. This man-made cavern was first utilized by Lincoln’s inaugural brewing company—the short-lived Pioneer Brewery, established in 1869—before housing a revolving door of enterprises, both seedy and benign.

Green pulled out a tablet and showed the crowd images of people decades ago, partying and having fun, contrasted by a muted image of novelist Willa Cather exploring the cave. Having published the Nebraska Book Award-winning Robber’s Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections in 2019, Green spoke of Robber’s Cave with an author’s enthusiasm and expertise; from urban myths surrounding outlaw Jesse James, to historical facts regarding the cave’s use as a brothel, a hideout for eponymous horse thieves, and even a subterranean daycare.

This history piqued the interest of Dan Patton, a film producer from Tennessee. On his way back home from a roadtrip with his wife, they heard rumor of Robber’s Cave and decided to make a detour to Lincoln. What Patton saw astounded him—enough to steel the resolve for his next project.

“[There’s] a lot of folklore and history in stone…and sandstone,” Patton said. “A lot of different facets to the cave, whether you’re a historian, ghost chaser, or underground person who loves unique things. There’s pretty much something there for everyone in the cave.”

“Dan was really dumbfounded and couldn’t believe that there hadn’t been at least a documentary made about the cave.” Green said. “There were a lot of offers, but just nothing ever came to fruition. A lot of people would come through saying, ‘can we make a documentary,’ but he was the first [to commit]. They pulled up with their RVs full of 4k cameras and spent the week here shooting in the cave. Some days we were down there from 7a.m. to 1a.m., but it was a lot of fun.” 

The documentary has reached the post-production stage, and release details are set to be announced in the near future. 

Between Green’s 2019 book, the site’s naming to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, and the upcoming documentary, Robber’s Cave is all but certain to attract an increasing volume of spelunkers and history enthusiasts from across the globe. If there were ever a time to enjoy this Nebraska spectacle as a local, it’s now. 

“This is a full-time job. I travel the Midwest and promote the cave as best I can, but unlike most tourist attractions that receive advertising dollars from the state, I get social media and word of mouth,” Green said. “That is why winning Nebraska’s 2022 Outstanding Tourism Attraction of the Year was so fulfilling for me. Robber’s Cave is unique enough that the more people that come to visit, the more people will come to visit.” 

“There’s nothing else like it in the state.” 

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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