Missouri’s Caves: If These Rocks Could Talk

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Bridal Cave
Fantastic Caverns - Springfield
Mark Twain Cave - Hannibal
Onondaga Cave
Meramec Caverns

Written by Ashley Sneed

Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by caves. The sheer size of them, the breathtaking formations, the mystery of stepping into the dark and not knowing what lies ahead. More than just stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones – caves are the keepers of history, million-year old mineral formations that have truly withstood the test of time. What sights have they seen? What stories would they tell? If only these rocks could talk…

Science tells us of a supercontinent called Pangaea, in which all the world’s continents were interconnected more than 300 million years ago. Some landmasses were once underwater and still bear evidence of this today. How else do you explain sea creatures in Ozark? In Smallin Civil War Cave, your guide will shine a flashlight on fossilized shark teeth preserved in stone. The shark teeth – and a shark spine not visible on the tour – are just the beginning of Smallin’s impressive history. Behold one of the largest cave openings in the state, learn how the cave once provided shelter to American Indians and discover the role it played during the Civil War. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a blind cave crayfish.

Many of Mark Twain’s works were based on fond memories of his childhood spent on the banks of the Mississippi River in Hannibal – and his explorations of what is now called Mark Twain Cave. The cave’s notorious owner, Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell used the site to examine dead bodies to learn more about human anatomy. The cave’s cool temperature offered the ideal environment for the surgeon to conduct his illegal “studies,” except for the likelihood that a curious 13-year-old boy was watching. Decades later, Twain included a scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Dr. Robinson hires Injun Joe and Muff Potter to dig up Hoss William’s body for medical experiments. Coincidence? I think not. Today, tours start with a short film about the cave’s history before you enter McDowell’s lair.

Good fences make good neighbors – except in the case of Onondaga Cave. When Dr. William Mook discovered that the cave stretched underneath land he had purchased in Leasburg – and his neighbor was making profits conducting cave tours – he dug down into the cavern and built a barbed wire fence to prevent trespassing on his property. Then he did what any businessman would do – he created a new entrance and started offering tours of his own. Four years later at that same fence, a group of Democrats, including future president Harry S. Truman, and a group of Republicans – unknowingly taking the rival cave tours on the same day – encountered each other, sparking a political debate. Despite its soap opera-worthy past, Onondaga Cave, now part of a state park, is a stunning sight.

American Indians thrived during the Woodland period near Eldon where they used Stark Caverns as a shelter and gathering spot for celebrations, rituals and ceremonies to honor their departed. In the 1900s, the cave became a moonshine distillery and speakeasy, outfitted with a dance floor – used for square dancing and roller skating – and an ice rink in the winter months when the cave’s stream froze over. Decades later, the owners decided to excavate a lake at the cavern’s entrance to help regulate the flow of water. The process uncovered American Indian remains, identified by researchers as a child, a young mother and two males, including one believed to be an Indian chief. Artifacts recovered during the exhumation are displayed inside the cave’s museum. For a modern experience, a blacklight tour sets florescent minerals aglow. Children will love sluicing for gemstones and fossils.  The cavern is home to the only escape room located in a cave, where visitors can test their wits or risk being entombed.

The Osage Indians referred to Marvel Cave as “The Devil’s Den” due to the strange noises emitted from its crevices and their fear of what lay within its depths.  Superstition didn’t stop author Harold Bell Wright from touring the grotto in the 1900s. So impressed by the spectacular attraction, he featured it in his book The Shepherd of the Hills. Visitors began to flock to Branson in search of the site he described. When the Herschend family leased the cave and decided to provide entertainment to the masses waiting in line to see the underground wonder, theme park Silver Dollar City was born. Today, tours of the cave are included with park admission. The 600-step descent into the deepest cave in the state is not for the faint of heart. But don’t worry, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – a cable train that takes you back to the top!

Discovered by a hunter and his dog, Fantastic Caverns certainly lives up to its name. Twelve volunteers from the Springfield Women’s Athletic Club, guided by nothing more than candlelight, were the first to explore and map the cave’s passages. During Prohibition, the cave was a popular speakeasy and gambling hall. Locals from Springfield would flock underground to enjoy lively music, imbibe and socialize. Decades later, the nationally broadcast show Farmarama was filmed inside the cave. These days you’ll find a quieter environment, the trickling of water and crunch of rock echoing throughout its chambers. Jeep-drawn trams transport guests through the cave’s expanse, making it accessible for all ability levels.

Though Bridal Cave‘s story is a sad one, there is a happy ending, for some. According to the legend, Wasena, daughter of an Osage Indian chief, and her friend Irona were kidnapped by Conwee, an Osage from an opposing tribe. In danger of being discovered, Conwee and his raiding party retreated with their captives into Bridal Cave to hide. Wasena rejected Conwee’s attentions, escaped captivity and jumped off a 200-foot cliff to her death. Irona, however, had secretly coveted Conwee’s brother, Prince Buffalo. After a period of mourning, they wed in the same cave, in a room dubbed the “Bridal Chapel.” To date, more than 3,000 weddings have been held inside the cave, located near Camdenton. Constant moisture from “Mystery Lake” has created beautiful formations that offer a perfect backdrop, including the largest collection of onyx in any known cave.

Dating back to 8500 B.C., bluff-dwellers began to settle in the region near Noel. As they learned more about agriculture, they formed a community and lived off the land, using a nearby cave for shelter and storage. A tragic landslide 2,000-3,000 years ago sealed the cave and all that remained inside. In 1925, Arthur Browning happened upon the subterranean opening of Bluff Dwellers Cave. An extensive archeological survey traced grinding stones, ashes from fires, arrowheads and human remains back to the Archaic period of American Indian culture. Operated by descendants of Browning, the cave displays a well-preserved collection of minerals, relics and fossils in the on-site Browning Museum.

Early explorers searched Meramec Caverns hoping to find gold but instead discovered another valuable resource: bat guano. The saltpeter extracted from the guano provided a perfect ingredient for gunpowder. During the Civil War, the Union Army set up an operation inside the cave that thrived until it was destroyed by Confederate troops in 1864. The cave eventually fell into the hands of Lester Dill, an avid cave explorer. Under his ownership, new pathways were unveiled – including one that held artifacts traced to outlaw Jesse James. Drawn by the discovery, as well as Meramec’s barn advertisements in more than 14 states (still seen today along highways) and “bumper signs” placed on visitors’ cars, crowds flocked to Stanton. Today, you can find adventure in a variety of forms –touring the cave, panning for gold, taking a leap of faith off the zip line platform or enjoying a ride aboard their riverboat.

There’s a reason why many of Missouri’s caves have been designated National Natural Landmarks. Their beauty is a remarkable sight and their stories bridge the ages.  Discover what the dark has to offer – relive history and create memories of your own in “The Cave State.”

Learn more about Missouri Caves here.

This article was originally published in the 2020 Official Missouri Travel Guide.