Robber’s Cave had been closed for years before the owners of Blue Blood Brewing decided to reopen its soft and scarred sandstone walls to the public.
It wasn’t easy. Manzitto Construction’s Sam Manzitto Sr. and Blue Blood owner Brian Podwinski had to hire structural engineers to design a restaurant and brewery around the cave’s century-old stone façade. They had to dig 30 feet into the ground to find a filled-in former entrance, for use as an emergency exit. They had to rewire the tunnels, hang lights, bring it up to fire code, protect its federally threatened bats.
And it wasn’t inexpensive. The cave’s resurrection cost tens of thousands of dollars, Podwinski said. Maybe more than $100,000.
But it turned out to be a popular decision. Since 2016, more than 40,000 people have toured the 5,000-square-foot cave, said guide and author Joel Green.
Then Blue Blood closed late last week, evicted by the building’s owner, Robbers Cave LLC, after defaulting on its lease. And while Manzitto — part of the ownership group — is working to find another brewery and restaurant to take its place, he’s working faster to reopen Robber’s Cave.
“That cave needs to be open to the public, they need to see that Lincoln landmark,” he said Tuesday. “It was closed for a lot of years and we needed to get it open again.”
He plans to meet with Green later this week to work out the details, but the cave just south of Van Dorn Park could be hosting tourists again by next week.
There should be demand. When Blue Blood abruptly closed, Green had dozens of tours scheduled, including 19 left to do this month. “And I’m more than willing and excited to get those folks into the cave.”
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The cave has deep roots in the city’s history, its walls carved and covered with names and initials for 140 years. It housed Pioneer Brewery in 1869, and served as a tourist attraction and party destination from the early 1900s to 1973, and again in the 1980s.
The tours filled fast after the cave reopened, attracting Lincoln residents who’d never had the chance to explore it, and those rekindling old memories, Green said.
“We have a lot of folks reliving their first dates, their first kisses, things like that.”
And after Green published “Robber’s Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections” and started traveling the region to promote it, he noticed a jump in out-of-town visitors.
The cave’s owners and investors expected demand for tours to taper, Green said. But that didn’t happen. He conducted 422 tours in 2018, up to 30 people in each session. Some days, he was leading groups through the tunnels seven or eight times.
“They just kept going strong and going strong.”