Caving With Tom Sawyer

Secrets of McDougal's Cave

Photo courtesy of Mark Twain Cave

Probably the most famous Missouri cave for anyone who was ever a child is the infamous McDougal's Cave, more properly called McDowell's Cave, or, today, Mark Twain Cave. This approximately 2 mile long cave, a maze of crisscrossed passages, first gained worldwide fame in 1876, with the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

The story of Tom Sawyer & Becky Thatcher's adventure underground has probably been responsible for more candles and string being taken into the dark than can ever be counted. What is less well known is the story of the cave itself. Discovered in the winter of 1819 or 1820 by Jack Simms, the cave became notorious during the 1840's, after its purchase by Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell. In 1849, McDowell put a wooden door on the cave, and locked it. This behavior aroused local curiosity, and it soon came to light that the doctor, in addition to his apparent ability as a surgeon, was quite interested in experiments and research on cadavers. This extended to methods of preservation, and one of his most macabre experiments involved suspending a copper and glass flask containing the body of his 14 year old daughter in the cave.

Once the locals found out, such a commotion was raised that the body was removed a year or so later. McDowell aligned himself with the Southern cause during the Civil War, and stockpiled guns and ammunition at his medical college in St. Louis. This gave rise to rumors of a munitions "stash" in his cave, although this was never proven. McDowell died in 1868, and the cave was purchased by the Fielder and Stilwell families. After the publication of Tom Sawyer, the cave became a full fledged tourist attraction, with the press of visitors causing John East to start a cave guide service in 1886. This made Mark Twain Cave the first commercial cave in Missouri, and it has been shown continuously ever since, by lantern until 1939, and with electric lighting since.

The cave was purchased in 1923 by Judge E.T. Cameron who had guided there in his youth. His son, Arch Cameron, discovered Cameron Cave, twice as large and never before entered, in 1925. Both caves are now shown to the public, although Cameron is shown by lantern only. In all, 6.5 miles of cave passage remain in what was originally one huge system, now intersected by Cave Hollow.

Both Mark Twain and Cameron Caves are unusual for Missouri in that they are maze caves--formed along intersecting joints in the extremely fine grained Louisiana limestone. At one point in Mark Twain five passages intersect, and in Cameron six do. This creates caves of an entirely different nature than most Missouri caves--high, narrow, dry passage crosshatching the rock under the hills, which end in dirt fill, when intersecting the valley sides, or when they become too narrow for people to fit through.

Scenes from Cameron Cave

This is in contrast to the low, wet, and muddy nature of many Missouri caves, whose shape more resembles a tree--a large trunk with smaller passages branching off. The most probable means of cave creation at Mark Twain and Cameron is that limestone joints were created during a period of uplift, while the limestone was still below the level of the water table. Water flowing through these joints then eroded the passage. Continued uplift of the region eventually drained the cave, and some additional solutioning came later, from surface sources. Because these caves are overlain with a layer of shale, preventing most water from entering, few speleothems occur in them.

But the beauty of cave formations are a minor draw to these caves--whose magic lies in their literary immortality, which draws tourists even today, who look to revisit their childhood by looking upon the cave of which Twain said, "No man knew the cave; that was an impossible thing."

2003 Jo Schaper.


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