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Discover Mid-America —June 2005

A Sampling of
Underground Attractions

by Ken Weyand

In the 1950s, when I was a student at the University of Missouri, I joined the “Cave Club” and took up “spelunking” or cave exploring. Some consider it a young person’s hobby, enjoyed mainly by lean and firm-bodied folks who get a kick out of wading in underground rivers, climbing over muddy rocks and squeezing through tight passageways — sometimes carpeted with bat guano — toward unknown and mysterious hazards.


The Onondaga Cave located near Leasburg in Onondaga State Park is one of the nation’s larger limestone caverns, Onondaga contains massive stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and other colorful deposits.
(Photo provided by Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

In those days a sinkhole near Columbia would lead to a weekend’s exploration. A couple of friends followed the sinkhole’s passageways 600 feet, finding (along with the bats) ancient crinoid stems and other fossils embedded in the cave walls, and an underground river. I still have the carbide lamp that sometimes banged on the sinkhole’s low ceilings as we crawled through water-formed tunnels.

Another friend explored Devil’s Icebox, a cave south of Columbia, with a small group of cavers. They used an army-surplus inflatable raft to follow the cave’s watery passageways. At some point during the exploration, the raft began losing air. Then one of the explorers turned the valve the wrong way, deflating it. The group scrambled to a ledge, isolated there for two days before they could re-inflate the raft to make it out of the cave. The entrance, marked by a natural bridge, can be seen today in Rock Bridge State Park on Hwy. 163.

A weekend trip with another caver took me to Onondaga Cave near Leasburg, MO where we hauled wheelbarrow loads of sand and gravel to help build sidewalks. In return, we were allowed, for a few hours, to explore nearby Cathedral Cave, then closed to the general public.

Like most caverns, Cathedral Cave was formed by water percolating through dolomite limestone. The structure is layered, meaning that one passageway can be located atop another similar passageway, with occasional openings from one to the other.

It gives one a real rush to crawl through a low-ceilinged tunnel, your carbide lamp pointing forward and to realize your next hand-hold is nothing but empty space, a dark hole dropping dozens of feet to another cave level.

The larger caves, such as Cathedral, have giant rooms with stalactites and stalagmites, sometimes forming massive columns. Other areas contain cave coral, flowstone draperies or soda straws. All such formations would have taken thousands of years of dripping water to take shape, steadily depositing various minerals to build awesome and colorful cave interiors.

Caving hasn’t left me but my approach is more civilized and comfortable. Instead of entering a cave over muddy rocks, I sometimes use an elevator. And I appreciate paved trails with strong railings in well-lighted rooms.

Missouri is called the “cave state” for its approximately 6,000 caves and caverns, at least 16 of which are open to commercial tourism. The northernmost 50 miles of Arkansas is said to have more than 2,000 explored caves.

Twain’s cave
For decades, school children within a 100-mile radius of Hannibal have taken an annual class trip to Mark Twain Cave, the oldest show cave in the state. At one point on the tour, the guide will turn off the lights and the children realize they can’t see their hands in front of their faces.

Located just south of Hannibal, the cave was discovered in 1919 by Jack Sims, whose hunting dog chased an animal into its entrance. During the days of the Underground Railroad, Mark Twain Cave sheltered Indians, trappers, outlaws and slaves.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain wrote, “The cave was but a labyrinth of crooked aisles that ran into each other and out again and led nowhere. It was said that one might wander days and nights together through its intricate tangles of rifts and chasms and never find the end of the cave.”

Nearby Cameron Cave was discovered in 1925. Covering nine acres, Cameron Cave’s 260 passages total six miles in length. The newest show cave in the state, it has hosted lantern tours since 1987. Both the Mark Twain and Cameron Caves are owned by the Cameron family.

Visitors can shop for gemstones in a rock shop. They can also enjoy a “live” Mark Twain portrayal in the Cave Hollow Theatre. Call 800-527-0304 or visit www.marktwaincave.com.

Spelunking on the Meramec
The largest commercial cave in Missouri is Meramec Caverns, located in Meramec State Park near Stanton. Open year-round, the caverns were discovered in 1933 by Lester B. Dill and opened to the public in 1935.

For years, travelers have been drawn to the Caverns by large signs on barn roofs, and in modern times on billboards and brochures. Used as a shelter for generations by Indian tribes, the caverns became a source of saltpeter, valuable in the manufacture of gunpowder, when a French miner discovered it in the 1700s.

During the Civil War, Union forces manufactured gunpowder in the caverns until the Confederates blew up the operation. Some believe the caverns were used as hiding places for slaves on the underground railroad and later by the James Gang for a hideout in the early 1870s.

Filled with a wide range of formations, the caverns host an annual Easter Sunrise service and a gospel festival in October. Nearby a campground, 40-unit motel and large picnic area cater to visitors. Call 800-676-6105 or visit www.americascave.com.

Also in Meramec State Park is Fishers Cave, one of the park’s natural wonders. Narrow streamside passages lead to huge rooms filled with calcite deposits up to 30 feet high. On the walls are bear claw marks and other evidence of cave wildlife. Ninety-minute lantern tours are offered by request. Call 573-468-6072 or visit www.missouricaves.com.


The Onondaga Cave located near Leasburg in Onondaga State Park.
(Photo provided by Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

Located near Leasburg in Onondaga State Park, Onondaga Cave was the subject of bitter land disputes after its discovery in 1886. With the property going through several owners, “Aunt Trissy,” the widow of the original owner, sued nearly everyone in sight (unsuccessfully) until her death in 1943 at the age of 95.

The cave was opened as a tourist attraction during the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and was named Onondaga after an Iroquois tribe. One of the nation’s larger limestone caverns, Onondaga contains massive stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and other colorful deposits.

For a time, the cave operated as two caves, separated by a barbed wire fence. One half was called Missouri Caverns. In 1934, when Harry Truman was running for the Senate, the Democrats had a picnic and tour of Missouri Caverns. On the same day, the Republicans toured Onondaga. The groups met at the fence and argued politics in the country’s first underground political debate.

Lester Dill, longtime caver and developer of Meramec Caverns, bought the cave (and nearby Cathedral Cave) with a partner and fellow cave promoter, Lyman Riley, in 1953. Riley, an ordained minister, sold his interest to Dill in 1967. Dill died in 1980. His estate and the Nature Conservancy helped the cave become a state park.

Cathedral Cave, also in Onondaga Cave State Park, is about three miles in length, plus several side passages. First discovered in 1919, the cave features flowstone, slump pits, a natural bridge and a nearly 80-foot ceiling.

In 1973, anticipating increased tourism for the Bicentennial, Dill built concrete walkways and handrails in the cave, installed electric lights, and named a giant column “Liberty Bell.” But the effort failed to attract visitors, and the cave soon closed. Then vandals stole or damaged most of the improvements.

The cave is currently being shown with a lantern tour on weekends by park staff. An earthquake monitoring system, operated by St. Louis University, is located in the cave and transmits data to the National Earthquake Center in Golden, CO. For tour info on both caves call 573-245-6576, or visit www.mostateparks.com.

Southwest of the Meramec River and some 12 miles east of Rolla is the Onyx Mountain Caverns, The caverns feature an acre-sized entrance room. Woodland Indian tribes used the caverns for shelter and ceremonial rites. Flint artifacts have been uncovered in the ashes of long-dead fires. Bears have hibernated in the caverns and their beds are preserved.

Cave features include an underground river (the end has never been found), a 35-foot high onyx formation, flowstone draperies, stalagmites and stalactites, columns and soda straws. Call 575-762-3341 or 2449, or visit www.pulaskicountyweb.com/onyxcave.

At the Lake of the Ozarks
Near the center of the state, on Hwy. TT between Versailles and Gravois Mills, is Jacob’s Cave. Discovered in 1875 by Jacob Craycraft, a lead miner, it is the first commercialized cave in the Lake of the Ozarks area. Jacob’s Cave opened in 1932 for tourists, who walked with lanterns on wooden planks. In 1947, Russell Hall bought the cave and installed concrete paths and electric lighting.

The only walk-through cave in the state that is accessible to disabled persons, the cave features reflective pools, sponge-work on ceilings, prehistoric bones and a room of minerals called the “world’s largest geode.” Many colorful formations can be seen on the mile-long tour. A rock shop is adjacent. Call 573-378-4374 or visit www.jacobscave.com.

To the south on Hwy. 5 near Camdenton is Bridal Cave. The cave gets its name from a local legend that claims the cave was the site of an Indian wedding ceremony. The tradition continues. A portion of the cave called the Wedding Chapel has hosted more than 1,900 weddings with couples coming from all over the world.

Considered one of the most scenic caves in America, Bridal Cave contains colorful formations that rival those in much larger caves. Giant columns, delicate soda straws and massive draperies can be seen throughout. Mystery Lake, a massive feature, was officially protected in 1948. Some chambers have only recently been developed for public view.

A large gift shop and rock & mineral shop are adjacent. Call 573-346-2676 or visit www.bridalcave.com.

To the east, in Lake of the Ozarks State Park, is Ozark Caverns, a typical limestone cave with a variety of carbonate formations: soda straws, helictites and stalagmites. “April Showers,” an unusual phenomenon, is named for a constant shower of water that appears to materialize from solid rock.

Claw marks show evidence that animals sought shelter in the caverns thousands of years ago. Present-day cave dwellers — salamanders and bats — can sometimes be seen on cave tours, which include a quarter-mile children’s tour, a half-mile speleology tour and a traditional half-mile tour for all ages. Call 573-346-2500.

Curiosities near the Current
Located 18 miles north of Eminence, Round Spring Caverns add underground wonders to the beauty of the Current River area. Close to the spring of the same name, the two are not connected.

One of more than 300 caves identified within the boundaries of the Ozark Natural Scenic Riverways, the caverns contain all major forms of calcite formations. Lantern-held “underground hikes” are conducted twice daily by the National Park Service, which operates the facility. Call 573-226-3945 or visit www.nps.gov/ozar/caves.html.

Underground tourism in Southwest Missouri
North of Springfield at Highways H and KK is Crystal Cave, said to be the only show cave in the Ozarks in which petrified prehistoric animals can be found. First opened to the public in 1893, the cave features spectacular flowstone “waterfalls,” stalactites, stalagmites and other formations, including a unique “upside-down well.”

Current owners are Lloyd and Edith Richardson. Call 417-833-9599.

Billed as “America’s Ride-Through Cave,” Fantastic Caverns north of Springfield on North Farm Road 125 was first explored by 12 women who answered the cave-owner’s ad for spelunkers. Armed with ropes, ladders, torches and lanterns, the women were the first to see the caverns’ thousands of formations: stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws, cave pearls, massive columns and flowstone.

Today, the caverns are toured by Jeep-drawn trams moving along an ancient dry riverbed. The 50-minute tour is comfortable for all ages, and ideal for handicapped persons and families with small children. Call 417-833-2010 or visit www.fantasticcaverns.com.

At Silver Dollar City west of Branson is Marvel Cave, first explored in the 1500s by Spanish treasure-seekers, according to old tales. Mineral deposits were the goal in 1869 of Henry T. Blow, a St. Louis lead mining magnate. Miners lowered themselves 200 feet into the caverns’ blackness but eventually did not find minerals. However, they were convinced the cave would yield marble, and called it Marble Cave. No marble was excavated just bat guano, a valuable fertilizer.

In 1894, William Henry Lynch opened the cave to visitors and gave it its present name. Hugo Herschend, a Danish immigrant from Chicago, leased the cave in 1950. Ten years later, the Herschend family opened Silver Dollar City theme park, built around the cave entrance.

Marvel Cave is said to have the largest cave entrance room in the U.S. It is also filled with calcite formations typical of limestone caverns. Ramps and stairs descend nearly 500 feet below the surface, giving visitors a strenuous tour. A cable train returns visitors to the surface. Call 800-475-9370 or visit www.silverdollarcity.com.

To the west, at the intersection of Highways 76 and 13, is Talking Rocks Cavern. First explored by Truman Powell in 1896, the cave was opened to the public in 1912 by the Powell family, who called it “Fairy Cave.” Like early-day Marvel Cave, this cave was briefly mined for its valuable guano before being opened to the public.

Features include a 100-foot tall cathedral and massive crystal draperies, along with a 30-foot pillar called Powell’s Column. Call 800-600-CAVE (2283) or visit www.talkingrockscavern.com.

In the extreme southwest corner of the state, two miles south of Noel on Hwy. 59, is Bluff Dweller’s Cave, discovered in 1925 by Arthur Browning and two highway surveyors.

The cave was found to be the site of human habitation when charcoal remnants from campfires were discovered along with human bones, arrows and stone implements. The artifacts are exhibited in the nearby Browning Museum.

Cave features include drapes, stalactites and stalagmites and “cave coral.” There is also a “balanced rock” and an underground lake with a limestone dam formation. Call 417-475-3666 or visit www.showcaves.com.

Caves in Arkansas

Old Spanish Treasure Cave is located just off Hwy. 59, just north of Gravette. The cave is reported to be the burial site of treasure from Spanish explorers. Helmets, pieces of armor, weapons and a few gold coins reportedly have been found.

The cave was opened for tours in the 1930s. Formations include a “frozen waterfall” of calcite. Call 479-787-6508 or visit www.spanish-treasure-cave.com.

War Eagle Cavern on Beaver Lake is just off Hwy. 12, midway between Eureka Springs and Rogers. It features several “domes” and “chimney” formations, waterfalls and rimstone dams.

Historic Indian artifacts from the cave are now in the Smithsonian. Confederate soldiers hid in the cave in the 1860s. It is claimed that Jesse and Frank James hid their horses and equipment there while visiting their grandparents in nearby Clifty. There are also reports that Pretty Boy Floyd hid bank loot in the cave.

Current owners are Dennis and Vicki Boyer. Call 479-789-2090 or visit www.wareaglecavern.com.

Cosmic Caverns, on Hwy. 21 between Eureka Springs and Branson, MO, is described as the “warmest cave in the Ozarks” at a constant 62 degrees. It is home to rare blind salamanders and (mostly blind and albino) trout.

The cave contains delicate soda straw and other calcite formations, and “bottomless” lakes that are yet to be measured. Gemstone mining and an Aquifer Study Program are offered.

Discovered in 1845, the cave gained fame in 1993 when it was featured on national TV. Call 870-749-2298 or visit www.showcaves.com.

Mystic Caverns is located south of Harrison on Hwy. 7. Discovered in the 1850s by settlers, the cave was first called Mansion Cave and later in 1920 Wild Horse Cave when it was opened to the public, who used wooden ladders to enter. It was deemed dangerous and closed in 1938 but reopened in 1949 after concrete steps and trails were built. More improvements, including lighting, were made in the 1960s.

A crystal dome was discovered in 1968 when it was renamed Dogpatch Cavern by new owners who operated a theme park by that name. In 1981 another owner renamed it Crystal Caverns.

A lower cave, Crystal Dome Caverns, contains two levels, including an 8-story crystal dome, and other formations. Both caves are included in one tour. A rock museum and gift shop are adjacent. Call 888-743-1739 or visit www.mysiccaverns.com.

Hurricane River Cave, about halfway between Harrison and Marshall, is a limestone cavern featuring major calcite formations. The cave also has been the home of a saber-toothed cat, prehistoric bears, and an Indian, whose skeleton was found in 1989.

The cave entrance is at the base of a towering bluff and waterfall.

In addition to regular tours, a wild caving tour is offered. Call 800-245-2282 or visit www.hurricanerivercave.com.

Bull Shoals Caverns, north of Harrison, features a huge rotunda where smoke stains indicate prehistoric tribes used the cave as early as 300 B.C. An area called “Garden of the Gods” contains stalactites and stalagmites of every known type. Cave “drapes,” soda straws, rare boxwork, cave pearls and many other formations enhance the tour, which takes visitors 95 feet below the surface.

Mountain Village 1890, an authentically restored Ozark town located near Bull Shoals Lake and the White River, is a nearby attraction. Call 870-445-7177 or visit www.1890village.com.

Blanchard Springs Caverns, 15 miles northwest of Mountain View on Hwy. 14, is a large, 3-layer cave with many large rooms and calcite formations of all kinds. One of the highlights is a “coral pond” of calcite on the Dripstone Trail.

Three tours are offered, varying in length from one hour to 3-4 hours, and in difficulty from wheelchair-accessible to strenuous climbing through undeveloped areas. The cave is used for choral concerts during the Christmas season, and other events. Call 888-757-2246 or visit www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/caverns.html.

In Oklahoma and Iowa
Alabaster Caverns, south of Freedom on Hwy. 50 in the Oklahoma panhandle, is the only gypsum cave in the U.S. open to the public. First explored in 1898, the cave property was sold to the state of Oklahoma in 1953.

Although there are no limestone formations, Alabaster Caverns contains selenite crystals, the crystallized form of gypsum. Call 580-621-3381 or visit www.TourOklahoma,com.

Crystal Lake Cave, five miles south of Dubuque on Hwy. 52, was discovered in 1868 by miners searching for lead. It was named Rice’s Cave by miner James Rice. Opened in 1932, it was given its current name in the late 1930s. Current owners, James and Doris Rubel, took over ownership in 1978.

A typical maze cave, Crystal Lake Cave contains helictites and aragonite crystals. Its promoters claim it is the longest “living” show cavern in Iowa. Call 563-556-6451 or visit www.crystallakecave.com.

Spook Cave, in Clayton, at the intersection of Highways 18 and 52, is toured by electric boats. The tour is described as America’s longest underground boat tour.

Gerald Mielke, the landowner, discovered the cave in 1953. Like settlers before him, Mielke heard intermittent noises coming from a tiny opening in the rock. Mielke blasted out the opening and found an underground river.

The intermittent noises that Mielke heard are now silent, prompting some to believe he “relieved the spirits.” This gave rise to the cave’s name. Call 563-873-2144 or visit www.spookcave.com.


Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at kweyand@gbronline.com.


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