10,000 Years of Caving in Missouri

The Asthma Sanatorium at Welch Cave

It is likely that humans have used Missouri caves as long as people have been here. In places like Graham Cave, (now a state park) human occupation dates to at least to 10,000 BP (before present). Most early use of caves seems to have been of shallow shelters and overhangs like Graham, although in some caves, like Onyx Mountain Caverns in Pulaski County, human use no doubt extended into the interiors. At a few sites, pictographs and rock art have been discovered, which has caused speculation on their ceremonial uses. Most archeological cave sites in Missouri are in sandstone, not limestone or dolomite. The sandstone caves tend to be drier, and therefore more likely to preserve human debris for later discovery.

Since the interiors of many Missouri caves are wet, with streams running through them, only the entrances were frequently used as campsites and water sources, with only a few being permanent residences. Chert nodules from caves were mined for use as raw material for tools, cave clay sometimes was used in pottery, and pieces of cave deposits have been found made into jewelry.

White settlers have had an ambivalent attitude to caves from the very beginning. On the positive side, caves and the springs furnished dependable water and refrigeration, saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder, relief from the sweltering Midwest summers, a place for adventure, hiding, and all manner of strange activity from moonshining to secret societies. Caves were often the destination of choice for picnics, dances and outings.

On the negative side, because of their alien nature and darkness which torches and lanterns only seemed to enhance, caves were thought to be the residences of devils, spirits and "haints". The danger of becoming lost or injured in a cave was much greater, since technologies such as ropes, ladders, and lights were more primitive. Entering a cave in the 1800's was much more an adventure than today because the chances of coming face to face with a wild animal that you had accidentally cornered was much more likely.

Missouri became a state in 1821, and it is likely no special attention was paid to caves except by local residents until 1853, with the founding of the first Missouri Geological Survey. The locations of well-known caves were noted as the first topographic maps of the state came to be made, but no systematic recording made sense of all cave reports or data. Early geology was largely economic geology--more attention was paid to mineral deposits and soil types than any other features. Caves were noted as landmarks, or due to their association with the more important springs, if they were reported on at all.

Early explorations by the Smithsonian Institute and the American Museum of Natural History regarding the flora and fauna of the state first brought Missouri caves to nationwide prominence with the blind cave specimens collected by Miss Ruth Hoppin of Sarcoxie, Missouri in the 1880's. Troglicthys (now Amblyopsis) rosae the Ozark cavefish, was one of her contributions, as was the bristly cave crayfish (Cambarus setosus). Samuel Garman reported on these in 1889. The adventures of Luella Agnes Owen in Ozark caves also took place in this era of the 1880s-1890s. Typhlytriton speleaus, the grotto salamander, also endemic to the Ozarks, made its first officially published appearance in 1893. There was a fascination in the scientific community with cave adapted creatures, partly due to Darwin's theory of evolution, and partly due to their own rarity and weird appearance. Modern scientific speleology was in its infancy in France, and the era of the wealthy, amateur natural historian was at its peak.

Additional national prominence came to Missouri caves during this time. Mark Twain Cave, made famous by the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, officially opened for paid tours in 1886, as the first show cave in Missouri.

Other get rich schemes involving caves began to materialize. Around the turn of the century, caves caught the fascination of the cut stone industry, who wanted to mine cave onyx as a substitute for marble. Although the stone took a high polish, it was softer than marble, and deteriorated once removed from the cave environment. During the search for cave onyx, several caves were test bored. There was a minor craze for cave deposits as gravestones, fenceposts, and other outside decorations. After plans for the mining of Onondaga Cave fell through, it was opened as a tourist destination for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, adding to the perception of Missouri as "The Cave State". Dr. H.C. Diehl, of Roxana, Ill., established an asthma sanatorium at Welch Cave,(photo above) on the Current River, to take advantage of the supposed curative properties of cave air. His hospital was first conceived in 1913, though the short lived enterprise did not open until 1937. Commercialization of caves seemed an epidemic in the early 1900's, with many of the current show cave operations commencing then.

About this time as well, Gerard Fowke, an itinerant archeologist, did an extensive survey of mid-Missouri caves, conducting excavations and writing reports for a variety of natural history institutions. He often described the cave features, in addition to his archeological findings. Much of this work was published in Bulletin 76 of the Smithsonian Institute, Bureau of American Ethnology, in 1922.

From the viewpoint of the scientist, most early research into Missouri caves was conducted by geologists and hydrologists, starting in the 1920's. Early studies by Josiah Bridge, C. L. Dake, H. C. Beckman, and N. S. Hinchey added to the basic information on Missouri Ozarks springs and caves, such as flow rates and locations. This information was further compiled by Willard Farrar into a set of "notes" which eventually became a partial cataloguing of the caves in the state. It was these notes established by Farrar (who was killed in WWII) that J Harlen Bretz of the University of Chicago consulted as he turned his studies of Missouri caves into the first extensive work on the subject.

Bretz, the pipe-smoking geology professor often photographed underground with his collie, Larry, has long been considered the father of Missouri, and to some, modern speleology. What made Bretz different from most previous cave geologists is that he and his students actually went underground to look at the caves, and deduce from them the process by which they were formed. His first trips to Missouri in the late '30s and early '40s preceded the publication in 1942of Vadose and Phreatic Features of Limestone Caverns, and included mention of them. In the late 1940's, Missouri State Geologist Edward Clark asked Bretz to do a report on the caves. Because Bretz "called 'em like he saw 'em" and his geologic conclusions often differed from the stories told by commercial operators, publication was delayed until 1956, though the manuscript was finished by 1954. Caves of Missouri is a 490 page study encompassing both descriptive and theoretical geology. Some of Bretz's conclusions have been found to be erroneous, but the book is still valuable for the base of information it conveys about the 437 caves then known to the Geologic Survey.

1956 is considered to be the watershed year of speleology in Missouri. Although cave enthusiasts existed before then, the publication of Bretz's book fired the imaginations of cavers across the state. Three of them, Frank Dahlgren, Oscar Hawksley and Jerry Vineyard formed a new organization called the Missouri Speleological Survey. They intended as a major part of its mission to continue the mapping and cataloging efforts started by Bretz and his students.

Much cave research in Missouri since 1956 has been carried on by three sorts of groups, and their members: government agencies, academics and their students, and private organizations made up of cavers. Some commercial caves, land trusts, and individual caveowners have also made contributions to the Master Cave Files, a cooperative venture between the various incarnations of the Missouri Geologic Survey and the MSS, in which the government agency (currently called the Geological Survey and Resource Assessment Division)) contributes storage space and reprographics, while the MSS does much of the field work which it shares with DGLS. In the late 1990s, the MSS and GS-RAD embarked on their current endeavor to digitize and archive the cave files, preserving the information against the day when the paper itself begins to crumble.

But not all Missouri cave history since 1956 has to do with science. Missouri caves were outfitted in the 1950's as fallout shelters to serve as refuges in case of nuclear attack. They were mistakenly thought to offer protection from radioactive contamination. Though their underground location would serve to insulate people from immediate radiation, the constant exchange of air and water with the surface would soon defeat that advantage.

Commercial caves, most notably Meramec Caverns and Bridal Cave, drew tens, then hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, thanks to an increasing promotion of tourism via publicity stunt started by shrewd cave operators like Lester Dill, once termed "the Showman of the Ozarks". Marvel Cave, near Branson, began as simple tour cave, to which Jack Herschend added a frontier village called Silver Dollar City to entertain the tourists while waiting for tours. The latter has grown to such an extent that visitors often go to Silver Dollar City unaware that Marvel Cave even exists. Much of the "buried treasure" in Missouri caves lies in the cash registers of successfully managed commercial caves.

Other sorts of publicity have caused problems for Missouri caves. Publication of locations for some of Missouri's rare cave species have caused far too many of them to end up as curiosities in jars of formaldehyde. Too much traffic from cavers and the general public have effectively trashed some of our best wild caves, beyond hope of recovery in several lifetimes. Careless and thoughtless visitors have set many others off-limits. The patience of landowners was tried once too often, and many caves are now closed to caving. The false promotion of caving as something fun to do, requiring little equipment or knowledge has lead to deaths, and too many rescues of inexperienced, ill-equipped people.

The expansion of suburbs, and construction of highways have destroyed many caves, even commercial ones like Cherokee Cave, once an active operation near downtown St. Louis. Fantastic Caverns, a cave with a fascinating history, and one of the few vehicle-toured caves in the country, lies on the northern edge of the booming city of Springfield. While promoting its cave as a natural underground wilderness home to several rare and threatened species, the management there has to keep an eye on groundwater quality to see it does not deteriorate under the onslaught of subdivisions, industrial waste, and septic systems. And the increasingly industrial nature of agriculture provides additional threats to more rural caves in the name of feed lot operations, toxic agricultural chemicals, and more intensive land use.

To help cope with these threats, The Missouri Cave Resources Act was passed in 1981, and the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act (for caves on federal land) in 1989. But the stewardship of the private landowner, who own about 80% of the known caves in the state, is still the most important factor for the future of Missouri caves. Increasingly, the focus of people interested in caves has turned from finding new ones to helping conserve those we know about, a concern which prompted the founding of the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy in 1992.

Even though more cavers are more concerned about these issues, and public education about the importance of the underground has increased, sheer human numbers is their greatest threat. There are more people going underground--both organized cavers and others. Somehow, caving has been seen to be "character-building", and caving is being used for the good of people, with little concern for the good of the caves.

Missouri has been dubbed The Cave State both for the sheer number of caves (second in the nation only to Tennessee) and our large number of world-class commercial caves and large springs. Caves are our heritage, and learning how to live with them part of the present, and the future. How well we manage this is up to us.

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