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
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
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,
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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