The resurrection of Robbers Cave has uncovered enough buried treasures -- Model A-era auto parts, a 90-year-old Nehi soda bottle, old Schlitz beer cans -- to fill a display case.

And they will, once Blue Blood Brewing finishes its 12,000-square-foot building at the mouth of the Lincoln landmark.

But the company is also finding signs of trespassers, vandals and thieves.

“We’ve welded the entrances shut and they’ve been pried open,” said owner Brian Podwinski. “It’s not safe. It’s a construction site.”

First, the trespassers. They've hit just about every week since August, when the brewery broke ground near the cave at 10th and High streets, he said. Vandals seem to visit every other week, breaking in and carving on the sandstone walls. And last weekend, thieves walked away with a $2,000 welder and $160 in other tools.

Add it all up, Podwinski said, and the criminal activity has likely cost the project $5,000 to $10,000 and wasted three or four weeks of work time.

“It’s tiring. We know some of it’s kids trying to get into the cave to see what it’s about, but we also know some of it’s adults.”

The cave has always been a magnet. Settlers first made note of it as a hiding place in the early 1860s, calling it the Pawnee Council Cave, according to an account by historian Jim McKee. It was considerably smaller then: When Pioneer Brewery bought the site in 1869, it spent three years enlarging the cave to a 900-square-foot storeroom, and the sand it excavated helped build the state prison, Capitol and asylum.

The cave grew as the brewery changed hands, and changed hands again. By the time the business closed a few years later, it had reached 5,600 square feet with 500 feet of tunnels and a future as a tourist attraction.

There's no proof Jesse James hid out there after holding up a Minnesota bank in 1876, but the story stuck -- and Robbers Cave spent much of the 20th century as a picnic area. People paid 25 cents to tour it in the 1930s, $5 in the 1980s.

Its owners bulldozed the entrance in 2000 and it remained sealed until this year, when Blue Blood Brewing announced it was expanding and moving to the historical site. Its new building will house a 9,000-square-foot brewery and offices overlooked by a 3,000-square-foot restaurant and taproom.

And it will reopen Robbers Cave for tours, to host special events and to age its barreled beer in the cave’s constant 55 degrees.

Podwinski and partner Sam Manzitto felt like explorers the day they opened its entrance for the first time and stepped inside the darkness.

“We thought that it hadn’t been open for years,” Manzitto said. “But then there was a date -- 2014.”

They’ve since explored every corner of the cave, a small maze of wide tunnels and narrow side rooms. Its walls -- and ceilings, in some places -- are crowded with carvings of names and dates, some reaching back to the 1880s.

As they dug deeper around the cave's entrance, construction workers started finding pieces of its past. Glassware and cans and bottles that once held Coca-Cola and Schlitz and maybe Michelob. A car frame and leaf springs and other parts, likely from a Model A.

“I think we could have built a car,” Manzitto said.

Podwinski has filled his garage with the discoveries.

“We’ve got a nice collection going. We’ll bring them inside and display them when we open.”

That was supposed to be in August, but now he's shooting for April. The project has hit delays -- first with the absence of a water main, and then as engineers figured out how to tie a new building to an old cave, and then from the trespassers, vandals and thieves.

He’s reported only two of the crimes -- a Nov. 8 break-in and last weekend's theft. He used to be a police officer, so he knows when there's a chance of catching someone, he said, and when there isn’t.

They have a better chance now. They’ve added cameras and alarms, and are working on permanent barriers, Podwinski said.

“If we catch them, we’re going to do our best to make sure they get in trouble.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Peter Salter is a reporter.

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