Shawnee News-Star Weekender Nov. 10th 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg When I was growing up, my family made journeys to Michigan. Five of us crammed together in one vehicle. Purpose was to visit my mother's relatives. The first day was the LONG day. The goal was to get beyond St. Louis. On barn roofs were advertised […]

Shawnee News-Star Weekender Nov. 10th 2018

Standing in front of Ice Cream Wall

Becky Emerson Carlberg

When I was growing up, my family made journeys to Michigan. Five of us crammed together in one vehicle. Purpose was to visit my mother's relatives. The first day was the LONG day. The goal was to get beyond St. Louis. On barn roofs were advertised caves and caverns in Missouri. Impossible to miss as barn after barn pointed the way to famous holes in the ground.

The first, Fantastic Caverns, was near Springfield Missouri. This commercial show cave was an underground riverbed with limestone formations. People were carted through the underground seated in a tram. In 1867, some of the earliest explorers happened to be twelve adventurous ladies of the Springfield Woman's Athletic Club. To commemorate the event, they carved their names into the rocks. Now a big no-no.

The War Club

In east-central Missouri was Onondaga Cave. At one point the flowstones, stalactites, and stalagmites of calcite (dissolved limestone) were mined as 'cave onyx.' Land disputes whirled around the giant cave over 50 years. Boats on the Meramec River provided cave access. A new entrance was dug in 1938 allowing the public to walk through the huge room of formations reflected in water.

Closer to St. Louis were Meramec Caverns, the largest commercial cavern system in Missouri. Saltpeter, component of gunpowder, was mined for years. Jesse and Frank James were reputed to have used Meramec as one of their hideouts. Parts of the movie 'Tom Sawyer' and one episode of 'Lassie' were filmed in one of the rooms. Guided tours take people past brightly lit curtains and spikes.

I actually did not have to leave Oklahoma to see a cave. Robber's Cave near Wilburton was a hop, skip and jump from our house. Embedded in sandstone held together by calcite, the end of the cool cave was dynamited to seal it off, preventing curious spelunkers from getting lost or trapped. As the name implied, this cave served both the James Brothers and Belle Starr, outlaw queen. Belle was fascinating. She was classically educated with training in piano. The lady fell in with a rough crowd and became quite adept with pistols. The mother of two kept company with several different men over time. Judge Parker was more than familiar with her and her family.

Nescatunga Cave in northern Oklahoma was fifty-four miles northeast of Okeene. It was a wild cave in the Blaine Gypsum Formation. My teaching colleague heard about this cave and checked it out. We decided it would be a great field trip adventure for interested high school students led by us two science teachers. Our little group of spelunkers dropped through a hole in the ground wearing jeans, long-sleeved shirts, knee pads, helmets, candles, matches in plastic and flashlights.

The cool cave had open areas, rocky strewn paths with tight passages and tunnels with water deceivingly deep. You had to wedge your back against one rock ledge while shuffling feet along the opposite rock wall. The cave system extended about 1 miles underground. When we arrived at the largest room, all flashlights were extinguished. Total blackness was accompanied by the dripping sound of water. Wow. Too much wow. It was then we saw our most passionate student begin to shake. His body stiffened into a horizontal board. Not one word had been said about his epilepsy. We had no choice but to make sure he could breathe and hoped the seizure soon ended. After 30 minutes he began to talk. We retraced our path as fast as possible, keeping a steady eye on our patient. The group was thrilled to emerge above ground in beautiful daylight surrounded by greenery. We were happy that student was safely extricated from the bowels of the earth and off to see the doctor.

In 2016 on another road trip, Mammoth Cave advertisements began appearing along the Bluegrass Parkway. Castle Hill Winery, stables and horse farms flew past, but we knew we were close as we drove by Diamond Caverns and Cave City. Tourist traps.

The undulating landscape was pock-marked by sinkholes (depressions caused by collapse of surface layers). At 4:30 pm several of us caught the last tour of the day: 'The Mammoth Passage Tour.' Eight different underground tours were offered. Over 405 miles have been surveyed, making Mammoth cave system the longest in the world. Our tour was an intro to Mammoth Caves. Ho hum.

Mammoth caves are Karst formations of calcium carbonate combined with ocean floor sandstones that eroded 10 million years ago. We walked into the Rotunda, one of the largest rooms and strolled past old trolleys and wooden crates leftover from the DuPont saltpeter mining in operation from 1812 to 1815. The Paleo Indians roamed the caves 4,000 years ago wearing their woven rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium) moccasins. No formations. We basically walked through a hole in the ground into a large area carved out by water with a side pit 200 feet deep caused by partial collapse of the sandstone roof. Best part: everyone had to turn off their phones and stop moving. The lights were turned off. Total darkness.

Entrance to Mammouth Cave

The most recent 2018 road trip took us into Lewisburg, West Virginia for the night. Next morning I saw a sign 'Lost World Caverns'. Yes!

The well-marked winding road led us through the hills to a long wood building in the valley. Pay your money and take the self-guided tour. It was well-worth the descent of 120 feet on 220 steps going up, down or all around. The 1 mile loop dropped 235 feet deep, the main cave ceiling was 120 feet high, stalagmites reached 80 feet and the temperature stayed a balmy 52 degrees year-round. Criss-crossed Hex rocks formed from ocean bottoms had fallen into piles on the cave floors. The cave rooms have calcite formations in natural colors of white, pink, green or orange. Stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn, soda straws, curtains, dome pits and even some cave bear bones are here. The natural opening was a small hole discovered in 1942, twelve stories above the cave floor. A long grapevine was growing down into the cave and thus the cave was christened the 'grapevine cave.'

Lost World caves were also formed in the Karst system of limestone dissolved by below surface moving water. Dye trails indicate an extensive network of underground streams flowing through the area. Lewisburg itself sits in a compound sinkhole.


Sinkholes can be seen in the Karst topography of Pontotoc Ridge Preserve south of Ada OK. Hiding below the exposed rocky outcroppings of limestone/sandstone are four small caves.

Conquer your claustrophobia. Visit a cave. You will be amazed at how many interesting things have happened below your feet!