By Addison Martin
Some Iowa City residents know about the beer caves located below Linn and Market Streets, but few have had the opportunity to explore them. Now, because of the Light Detection and Range technology, LiDAR, a team of University of Iowa faculty and staff will try to change that.
These caves were once used by North Side breweries and bars to ferment and store beer, and they are now a historical landmark and part of Iowa City’s rich culture.
LiDAR allows the team to take multidimensional images of the caves and their surrounding areas, and it will eventually allow an online tour through the historic tunnels. LiDAR uses lasers and a series of depth points to create a final image.
The Office of the State Archeologist along with UI faculty and students went to the caves in June and were able to get base images of two main tunnels, a part of a much larger system, with hopes to return with a full team in early August.
“Now, this tells a story,” Adam Skibbe said as he pointed to a brownish-orange spherical shape on a dark computer screen.
He was pointing to a scan of an entrance chimney to the beer caves.
Skibbe, a systems administrator in the Geographical Information Systems, said the story this image tells is of the 3D mapping of these caves that lie below Linn and Market Streets.
Only special tours and research groups have explored the caves, which have been around since the late-1850s. When Skibbe and a friend began discussing using the LiDAR technology, the goal was to allow Iowa City residents to explore their city’s history without leaving their home.
“It was basically one of those moments where we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …’ and it went from there,” Skibbe said.
LiDAR will eventually allow for a photo-realistic, multidimensional view of the tunnels and rooms, 25 feet below ground.
“The ultimate goal would be something like a beer caves video game, without the tasks,” he said.
Marlin Ingalls, architectural historian and archeologist at the Office of the State Archeologist, said he has known about the beer caves for about 20 years.
“Over time, with some lights and a better ladder, I began taking a few people down there,” he said. “Mostly fellow archeologists, part of the university’s research areas.”
Mark Anderson, another team member and research archeologist with the Office of the State Archeologist said this was an opportunity not only to expand their knowledge of the caves but also to get a group of intelligent people working on a project important to Iowa City’s history.
“It was a multifaceted team, and we all brought different specialties and skills,” he said
The 50-pound LiDAR scanning machine has been mostly used to do above ground image mapping, but its three-dimensional point technology was ideal for this kind of space recreation that the team ultimately wanted.
The LiDAR is set on a tripod and is electronically set to be as close or far away as the person wants the scan to be.
They start with a base point and use it to bring in a number of different scans of other rooms and levels.
The caves were used by bars and breweries on the North Side years ago. These underground tunnels functioned as transportation, fermentation, and storage units for beer barrels. A fire that destroyed one of the breweries did affect one of the rooms, Ingalls said, but the base structure remains strong.
The use of LiDAR technology in the beer caves has become a learning opportunity for a few UI students, who were able to explore the caves.
“The community is the best group we could ever partner with,” Anderson said. “When you give them this cultural resource management information, they become stewards to the history, they protect it.”
Anderson said looking forward, a cabin that belonged to the original Johnson County settlers, located in City Park is the next thing they want to bring the city’s attention to.