Belfry Bulletin

Search Our Site

Article Index

Some Caves and Characters in the Eastern U.S.A.

Following the reconnaissance trip by Trebor, Mac and Stumpy (BB 445) the main expedition - J'Rat and Jane arrived in the U.S. of A. on 8th September, after eventually negotiating the dreaded immigration and the large photo of Ronnie welcoming all AIDS - free tourists to the New World.  After an overnight stop in Washington D.C. we drove to Front Royal in Virginia - an attractive old town where we managed to find a proper pub, a 1933 "Caverns of Virginia" and a supply of camping gas.  Our cups runneth over.

The first show cave visited was just out of town, at the start of the boring Skyline Drive.  Appropriately called SKYLINE CAVERNS this is an extensive phreatic system carved from very light grey, chalky limestone and possessing very little in the way of normal formations but famed for the hundreds of large anthodites or "cave flowers" in one short section of the tourist route.  The other attraction was the young girl cave guide full of sparkling wit and repartee and wearing white ankle socks!  Where were you Snablet?  A further novelty was a tape recorded recitation on the Glory of God who had created this magnificent underground marvel.  Fair enough, I thought, but he also created Hunter's Hole. Parts of this cave also suffer from poor coloured lighting and algae growth though it is still worth a visit. The anthodites are advertised as unique in the world but those who have visited Napp's Cave at Ilfracombe will know better!

An early start the next day saw us at the famous LURAY CAVERNS near the town of that name.  This is one of the world's great stalactite caves consisting of large phreatic chambers packed with immense formations some of which divide the chambers into smaller rooms.  Their colour, variety and profusion are incredible and there are some fine examples of the rare "shields".  Not content with their visual attractions the management allowed a Mr. Leland W. Sprinkle to attach rubber trip hammers to a selection of stalactites operated from an organ console.  The strains of "Shenandoah" echoing around the largest chamber, interspersed with the tinkle of dripping water is particularly atmospheric.  The Great Stalacpipe Organ, an awesome bit of vandalism, should not be missed.  (I have a tape recording for those without the air fare).  Other gimmicks here are the underground war memorial, a huge notice board painted with camera lighting settings for the snap-happy and, on our trip, a short and fat cave guide with some entertaining chatter and a Deep South accent.  A most worthwhile experience.

As we were camping at the nearby ENDLESS CAVERNS it was only fair that we went in them.  Another extensive solution system with superb pendants and formations - particularly the "shields".  A young and knowledgeable lad guided us and spouted the customary American show cave jokes ("If that rock falls on you don't worry about insurance - you'd be fully covered" etc) and showing his one-upmanship over other guides by walking backwards all the way out of the cave. To add to the fun of our visit there were plenty of active bats to upset the lady tourists and a few narrow sections to wedge the obese ones (about 90% ).  There is supposedly over 6 miles of passage in this system.  In the 1920's the Explorers Club of New York worked here and exploration is being continued by the owner and his son, both cavers.  A further treat is the gift shop where rubber rocks, bat hats and lurid T-shirts may be purchased (and was).  Incidentally the camp slate here is excellent.

Our next cave was further south near Keezletown.  MASSANUTTEN CAVERNS was recommended by Trebor (Thanks mate:) mainly because of the great character who owns it.  Mr. Brad Cobb is an old time caver badly crippled by a stroke and arthritis but who manfully guides tourists round the ¼ mile of paths on two sticks.  It is not a large cave but is extremely well decorated with thousands of straws, cone shaped and bulbous stalactites.  Mr. Cobb would stop every few seconds to point out items of interest ("Weird, weird, weird") and to continually damn cave vandals ("Buzzards").  After fulfilling his main ambition of owning his own cave Mr. Cobb has two more ambitions left - to live long enough to see the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the cave in 1892 and to visit the Mulu caves!  I hope he succeeds in both.  ( See letter following this article).

We now temporarily left Virginia and after violating the traffic rules in Staunton crossed into West Virginia en route to the FRIAR'S HOLE CAVE SYSTEM near Renick.  Owned by another famous American cave man, Gordon Mathes, this is a 47 mile long wild cave with five of its seven entrances situated on Gordon's 600 acre farm. Like Trebor and Co. we were fortunate to stay at the private caving hut situated near the farmhouse - an old haunt of caver’s world wide, none of whom were around at the time.  Our first trip here was into the huge trunk passage of SNEDEGAR'S CAVE via the SALTPETRE ENTRANCE, where Jane and I were accompanied for a time by two spelunking cows sheltering from the outside heat! Negotiating the piles at breakdown was easy enough but the plies of cowsh was a different matter.  We followed this passage for several hundred feet as far as a low section which leads to a sumped connection with the rest of the system.  Many bats, a crayfish and our first cave cricket were seen en route.

While Jane then sunbathed and drank cold beer (a mandatory American pastime ) I explored the adjacent NORTH ENTRANCE and after giving the complicated Saltpetre Maze a cursory examination continued down the obviously flood prone main passage until stopped by a wide, 15 foot deep pothole with a slippery traverse ledge which I couldn't attempt on my own and without a rope.  This is a very attractively water worn swallet system and connects with Snedegar's Cave via the Saltpetre Maze.

On our way back to the hut the huge, impressive entrance of CRUICKSHANK CAVE was examined.  This is notable for its 100 ft. entrance shaft and nearby sign warning SRT cavers that "Rats may chew the rope"!

Later that day TOOTHPICK CAVE and ROLLING STONES CAVE were visited.  The former is a Yorkshire type swallet connecting with the main Friar's Hole System.  It was followed along 400 ft. of cricket infested canyon to the head of 50 ft. Toothpick Pot.  Rolling Stones was briefly looked before an imminent thunderstorm and the desire for a gin and tonic caused a retreat.  This cave is not yet connected Friar's Hole due to a constricted passage.

Having bid a sad farewell to this great spot we continued on our way via LOST WORLD CAVERNS - a superbly lit and fantastically decorated show cave near Lewisburg.  First entered down a 120 ft. pothole in 1942 this large breakdown chamber boasts magnificent pillars and tall stalagmites - all lit by 30 ft. high double lamp standards.  The tour is usually self-guided.

Next on the list was ORGAN CAVE - the complete opposite of Lost World. Having over 40 miles of passage this is one of America's longest systems with the main entrance and associated trunk passage as a rather tatty show cave.  With its wooden shack ticket office, obtrusive electric cables strung with usually bare light bulbs (though some have apparently ex jumble sale lampshades) on and sawdust covered paths this place seems to be unchanged since the hey-day of the American show cave in the 1930's.  The passages visited are essentially two huge bore tubes forming a Y-junction with a smaller side passage leading off and containing 37 wooden saltpetre leaching vats installed in 1861 when Confederate soldiers worked the sand deposits for nitrates to make gunpowder.  The wood is still in excellent condition.  This cave has little in the way of formations but the tour was made well worthwhile by the "Deputy Dawg" southern drawl of the owner/guide and his fund of tall tales.  At one point a solution pocket was pointed out as the mould of a dinosaur, now removed for display in an un-named museum!  Despite - or rather because of its old-fashioned grubbiness this tourist cave is a must.

Farewell W. Va. and on to Kentucky and the MAMMOTH CAVE National Park.  Volumes could be written on this place (and many have).  At 325 miles surveyed so far this is the world's longest cave and roughly a mile a month is the going exploration rate - a bit like Bowery Corner. From a selection of eight different tours Jane and I selected two that would cover the most extensive and interesting regions without covering the same ground.  Our first trip was the "Echo River Tour" and was led by a woman guide with a trainee male guide in tow, both wearing smart "Baden Powell" uniforms.  Our party of 44 was shepherded from the Historic Entrance, through the Rotunda (saltpetre mining ) past the Giant's Coffin ( Indian gypsum mining artefacts) through Fat Man's Misery to Relief Hall (underground bogs!).  From here a roomy bore passage was followed to the Dead Sea and along a series of paths and catwalks above Echo River - this last section being negotiated with all except the guides wearing bright orange life jackets - their’s were National Park khaki!  Everyone then boarded a couple of large punts for a 50 yard boat trip before returning from whence we had come and out of the cave via River Hall.  Mammoth Dome and Historic Entrance.  My main impressions of the cave were of magnificent flat roofed trunk passages and large, dry tunnels.  The lighting is discreet and gives one the feel of actually caving - in fact, due to electrical faults, Mammoth Dome was hardly lit at all!  The guides are well trained, informative and capable of dealing with any type of questions - and at least one of them was much prettier than Chris Castle.

When in this area it is an obligatory caver's duty to indulge in a spot of morbidity and visit SAND CAVE where Floyd Collins was trapped and died in 1925.  I explored the somewhat eerie entrance chamber in a heavy rainstorm and found the cave passage proper to be sealed by a welded iron grid.  Denied a trip I spent ten minutes photographing the hundreds of huge cave crickets hanging upside down in various niches around the entrance chamber.  Being alone in this atmospheric spot it was difficult to visualise the 10,000 rowdy onlookers who gathered here to watch the abortive rescue attempts over 60 years ago.

Our next Mammoth Cave trip was the "Half Day Tour", via Carmichael Entrance and along the mile long tunnel of Cleveland Avenue - covered in gypsum crystals and flowers and giving some idea of the vast extent of the system.  This passage ended abruptly in the Snowball Dining Room where an underground restaurant and more bogs satisfied the needs of the 200 strong party.  Our route march then continued along Boone Avenue to reach Mammoth Gypsum Wall and yet more bogs after another 1.6 miles.  Beyond here a large collapse is surmounted to reach Grand Central Station where a lecture was given by Duke, the chief guide.  Another character, he has worked here as a Ranger for 20 years and really knows his stuff.  Anyone who can keep control of 200 assorted, American tourists must be good.  The final part of the trip took us to the spectacular flowstone cascade of Frozen Niagara and then out via the entrance of the same name.  This had been a four hour tour and some of the merry throng only just made it!

Returning to Virginia a couple of days later we camped at NATURAL TUNNEL - an 850 ft. long, 100 ft. high and 100 - 175 ft. wide cave passage used as a short cut by the Stock Creek and, more recently, the Southern Railway.  It is quite an experience to be halfway through a cave when a hundred truck freight train comes through - especially when the driver waves a friendly greeting.  For more information on this cave see the recent article by Tony Waltham in Cave Science Vol 15 No 1.

Nearby, across the border in Tennessee is the grotty town of Bristol and its own BRISTOL CAVERNS.  How could we not visit this?  Once used by Cherokee Indians as a water supply and hiding place this is a well decorated show cave with a fine streamway below the main chamber. What a place to be without a Bertie sticker!

The last show cave of the holiday was DIXIE CAVERNS in Virginia.  A mediocre cave but with yet another attractive lady guide.  The ¼ mile long trip through narrow passage and larger chambers was somewhat spoiled by the coloured lighting.  The novelty of this visit came when the guide discovered I was a "spelunker" and I ended up leading the party!  Of some interest here are examples of calcite "boxwork" and the rarely seen Dixie Salamander, one of which was spotted atop a stalagmite.

The next week was dedicated to deep sea fishing, snorkelling and vast alcohol consumption off the Florida coast and of little interest to B.E.C. members though we did find America's only drive in pub - "a six pack and two pints to go buddy". Clutching our beers we drove off into the night.

Save up your bucks - the States and the Yanks are a real treat.

Have a nice day y'all     Tony Jarratt


EDITORS NOTE The letter below was on nicely headed notepaper but I've typed it because Mr. Cobb's writing is not always perfectly legible, probably due to his arthritis.  It was addressed to Dave and I've not altered anything.

Keezletown, Virglnia 22832
Oct. 6. 1988

Dear Dave Turner,

A few weeks ago, I received a second visitation, this year, from the membership of B.E.C.

They were generous enough to bestow a copy of the BELFRY BULLETIN for my somewhat sketchy library of things Speleological (Volume 42 No.3 Number 445 July 1988 ).

I was highly flattered to read your kind words about an earlier visit by other members of B.E,C., in April.  It made me feel as though my efforts to do a good job of guiding was actually appreciated by people who know caves.

Commercial Caves in the States tend to have suffered greatly at the hands of the public.  MASSANUTTEN CAVERNS, also, has received it's share of vandalism by the "Hands On" approach to collecting souvenirs over the years.  During the past third of a century, I have tried to develop a modicum of concern in the minds of our visitors.  Sometimes Success!

It is an uphill fight and every good word is treasured.  The cavalier treatment of all of our environment is pervasive in countries through the world.  This is rather short-sighted, don't you agree?


Bradford ( Brad ) Cobb    N.S.S. 2513