10,000 Years of Caving in Missouri
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 many Missouri caves are wet, with streams running through them,
they 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. Typhlitriton 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." Welch Cave, on the Current River, was considered by Dr. H. C. Diehl as a location for an
asthma sanatorium, to take advantage of the supposed curative properties of cave air,
beginning in 1913, though the project did not open until 1937. Commercialization of caves
seemed an epidemic in the early 1900's, with many of the current commercial operations
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 1942
of 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 cave owners 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 Geologic Survey and Resource Assessment Division (GS-RAD) contributes storage space
and reprographics, while the MSS does much of the field work which it shares with GS-RAD.
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 the 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 feedlot
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. More cavers
are more concerned about these issues, but, unfortunately, 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, not the good of the
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.
2003 Jo Schaper.
Return to Webster's Home Cave.