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Discover Mid-America June 2005
A Sampling of
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 persons 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.
In those days a sinkhole near Columbia would lead to a weekends
exploration. A couple of friends followed the sinkholes 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 sinkholes low
ceilings as we crawled through water-formed tunnels.
Another friend explored Devils Icebox, a cave south
of Columbia, with a small group of cavers. They used an army-surplus inflatable
raft to follow the caves 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
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
Caving hasnt 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
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
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 Caves 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
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 parks 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.
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 nations larger limestone caverns,
Onondaga contains massive stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and other
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 countrys
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
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
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 worlds
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
childrens tour, a half-mile speleology tour and a traditional half-mile
tour for all ages. Call 573-346-2500.
Curiosities near the Current
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
Current owners are Lloyd and Edith Richardson. Call 417-833-9599.
Billed as Americas Ride-Through Cave,
Fantastic Caverns north of Springfield on North Farm Road 125 was
first explored by 12 women who answered the cave-owners 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 Powells 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 Dwellers 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
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
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
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
In Oklahoma and Iowa
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
Rices 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 Americas
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
The intermittent noises that Mielke heard are now silent,
prompting some to believe he relieved the spirits. This gave
rise to the caves 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 email@example.com.
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