Saturday, December 22, 2007

More than meets the eye

In 2005, the Missouri Speleological Survey listed 5,800 known caves in Missouri. There are more than 500 linear miles of identified cave passageways, with the longest cave, Crevice in Perry County, measuring 28 miles. Cave communities are tied to the terrestrial, geologic and aquatic resources all around them. Every cave is different, just as the surrounding soils and rocks are different. Some caves have elaborate speleothems, others have rivers running through them, some have gravel floors while others are filled with silt. Nevertheless, or perhaps because each cave has its own character, several of Missouri's underground communities have been converted into "show caves," complete with handrails, lights, and concrete floors.

One of the historical show caves is located outside of Leasburg, smack in the middle of the Ozarks. No one really knows when Onondaga cave was first discovered, but its modern history began in the latter half of the 19th century when a small group of millwrights decided to use the cave's springwater to run a mill. Seeking a higher return on the land, plans were laid to mine and sell the thousands of speleothems as "cave onyx." Lack of mining experience encouraged the millwrights to sell the property to other interested parties. One of those was George Bothe, a miner from St. Louis who, armed with experience, intended to sell off the formations.

Thanks to Missouri's saturated cave onyx market, the cave remained in tact. Instead of mining it, Bothe decided to show the cave as a landscape feature during the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Fairgoers could hop a Frisco line down to Leasburg to see one of Missouri's natural wonders. Trips to the cave were so popular that Bothe decided to keep it open after the fair ended. Eventually he sold the show cave to Robert Bradford, who continued to operate tours. Leasburg became a frequent stop for trains carrying tourists to see the cave, but when rail travel dropped, so, too did tourism. Onondaga stayed open for tours, but the monetary return was in steady decline.

A rather fascinating controversy broke out in the early 1930s when the property near Onondaga was sold to Eugene Benoist. Cave ecology wasn't well understood in the 1930s, but it was soon discovered that most of the cave ran under the recently sold property. Using a different entrance to Onondaga, Benoist's lease holder, Dr. William Mook, opened another entrance to the cave and starting running cave tours of his own. A war between the show cave operators broke out.

The dividing line between the two properties was established by a barbed wire fence. Onondaga Cave tours were conducted on one side of the fence and Missouri Caverns tours were held on the other. Unfortunately, the underground property line was so ambiguous that Bradford and Mook couldn't agree on the actual boundaries. Bradford sued Mook, claiming the other half of the cave by adverse possession. The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court. Mook won, but died 6 months prior. Cave tours continued for both operations. Tour guides staged rock fights around the barbed wire fence, while above ground hucksters for both operations continued to bring in tourists traveling Route 66.

After a rather sad and sordid land dispute, the cave ended up in the hands of one of Missouri's famous Ozark personalities, Lester Dill. A master of the tall tale, he always told what he called the "Ozark truth." In 1950, he promoted a 102 year old Oklahoman as the real Jesse James. He received national attention for this stunt.

Dill guided tourists through the cave dressed like a caveman and continued to advertise heavily along Route 66. Despite his showmanship, he remained a staunch protector of Onondaga Cave. Of course, for decades, the thousands of tourists caused serious damage to the formations and water quality; even today, staff continue to pull out antique flash bulbs and other tourist-related rubbish from little nooks and crannies.

Onondaga remains a show cave, but its resources are finally being protected. Despite all of the foot traffic, all of the exploration and exploitation that has continued through the years, discoveries are still being made. In early December, a small passage that opens up into a large room was discovered at Onondaga Cave. I received an email from one of the Onondaga staff two days later. I've taken out the hundreds of exclamation points, but her excitement remains evident:

About a month ago, one of the cave guides pointed out a hole that was 3 - 5 feet deep and was filled with old camera flash bulbs. On Saturday Dec. 8th, a volunteer and I were going to clean out the hole. When we got to the hole, we discovered that the hole was no longer 3 - 5 feet deep. It had collapsed and was much deeper and it appeared that a horizontal passageway continued at the bottom. I sent two very experienced grotto members down the newly opened passageway to investigate. What they found was amazing. The passageway continued for approximately 500'. Within that passageway, there is a small hole that was "blowing" which means that there is a significant amount of cave beyond that hole. A skeleton (a couple of people guessed peccary others guessed dog) was found on top of the clay sediment. The hind legs are articulated. Hoofed mammal tracks (peccary?) as well as slide marks were found. Found within the vertical hole was the barbed wire fence and the sign that separated Missouri Caverns from Onondaga during the famous "Cave Wars". Huge amounts of "trash" (one broken soda bottle was dated 1944) was found at the bottom of the vertical hole.

So, how did all of this "trash" end up at the bottom of a closed off hole? Upon further inspection, we think that we found the answer. During the first part of the cave's life as a show cave, people threw garbage down that hole. Sometime after the mid to late 50's (most recently dated soda bottle found), someone covered the hole with wire mesh and covered the mesh with clay. The hole still existed and people threw flash bulbs down the hole on top of the clay covered wire mesh. At some point, someone covered the flashbulbs with clay. Recently, the flash bulbs were exposed and the wire mesh rusted through exposing the hole.

It reminds me of the highway workers outside of Springfield who discovered a 2 mile long cave (complete with ice age skeletons) while digging a sewer line. Or that house outside of Springfield that fell halfway into a sinkhole, exposing another unknown cave. Or the bridge workers who were putting in pilings near Branson and hit a huge pocket of air that turned out to be an enormous cave. The naturalist was intending to pick up trash out of an old garbage pit and discovered another branch of the cave that thousands of tourists have never seen.

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