America’s Most Colorful Caverns
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!
Nature carved a fairyland beneath the rolling, wooded hills of rural West Liberty, Ohio. Nobody knew that over three miles of the most colorful caverns in America lie below, growing one drip at a time, undisturbed for ages.
This countryside was ripe to have caverns carved by underground water eroding the limestone hillsides. The area, known as the Bellefontaine Outlier, is an unglaciated section that wasn’t flattened like its surroundings.
Rains and time eroded the fertile farming soil, creating a sink hole that revealed a crack in the Columbus Grey Limestone now exposed 10 feet down. It was discovered by a migrant farmhand named Robert Noffsinger who worked William Reams land. He lowered himself into what is today known as Ohio’s oldest attraction for it was only 10 days later that Reams began offering tours by lantern light of this natural wonder in August 1897. It was originally marketed as the Mt. Tabor Cave but locals called it Reams’Cave. Years later, it was renamed Ohio Caverns, which is still the name today.
Like so many other caves opened for public tours across the nation before protective legislation preserved them, souvenir hunters quickly stripped clean the magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations. Fortunately in the early 1920’s, a whole new section of Ohio Caverns was discovered and preserved with its abundance of beauty and truly one-of-a-kind formations. After years of clearing mud and pouring a cement walkway, this protected rarity (known as The Natural Wonder Tour) opened a nondescript door inside the visitors’ center. Since then, generation after generation has descended down a concrete stairway to a temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit to explore things you just won’t find anywhere else. And so it was for the next 87 years.
The original section of cave was abandoned in 1925 but reopened as the “Historic Tour” in 2012 along with a new entrance to the “Natural Wonder” section, which took 10 years to complete because much of it had to be hand-dug and cleared. The purpose of the new access point was to allow folks with limited mobility the ability to go cave dwelling. A short stroll from the visitors’ center down a long serpentine ramp overlooking the serene Mingo Valley, anyone can now enjoy a subterranean adventure. But in case anyone wants to relive that nostalgic magic by entering the caverns through the old door in the visitor center, come back during winter.
American tourism really took off after WWII with the mobility of the family automobile and ever expanding state route networks paving the way. During the 1940s and 50s, US-68 was the main thoroughfare between Detroit and Cincinnati. This brought droves of people to Ohio Caverns just a few miles away. You only needed to look for the old road signs, some of which still loom large pointing the way. But then, like the movie “Cars,” drive-thru traffic rerouted to the newly built Interstate 75.
Being in the middle of nowhere, Ohio Caverns could no longer depend on billboards to introduce travelers to this fabulous roadside attraction. So, in their first real marketing effort, brochures were handed out at the Ohio State Fair. Another tactic was wrapping a bumper tag to every car in the parking lot while folks were inside the caverns. This was a common practice during a bygone era that eventually gave way to handing out modern bumper stickers. Old cars used to have a gap between the bumper and the body of the vehicle allowing a tag to wrap around it and be stapled at the bottom. The stickers later used were discontinued around 1982 due to the residue left on the modern painted bumpers.
Before media was fractured to a bazillion outlets and mediums, there used to be powerhouse radio stations like the historic WLW-700 out of Cincinnati that would reach an audience spanning Pittsburgh to Chicago. It wasn’t cheap but it was effective. And between that and news stories through the years, Ohio Caverns picked up slogans such as “Ohio’s Outstanding Natural Attraction”and “America’s Most Colorful Caverns,” origins unknown.
“The cave is such a positive environment and such a quality product, people are just blown away by it,” said Eric Evans, the current owner of Ohio Caverns which is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. “My favorite stories are when visitors come out of the cave completely taken aback by the natural beauty of what they’ve just seen,” Evans added.
Another recurring scene is hiding an engagement ring inside a bag of rough you get to pan through outside at the gem mining sluice.
The authentic wooden, gem mining sluice has a 13-foot tower and 80-foot flume. Water is piped out of the tower and splashes its way through staggered planks of narrow chutes. Along the flume, people gather with five pounds of rough purchased in the gift shop. There, they slide wooden plates into grooves at the sides of the channel as they pan for real gem stones and minerals. About a dozen ornamental stones are commonly found, including emeralds and pyrite (fool’s gold). The mining sluice is another place easily accessed by those with limited mobility.
Although Ohio Caverns has primarily served as that generational family destination, it has expanded its reach to large groups, reunions, scout and school tours. There have been as many as 20,000 students visiting in a single school year. Its quiet park setting covers 35 acres of countryside and offers a playground and two pavilions for sheltered picnicking. One of which can host as many as 180 people. There’s even a self-guided tree tour.
It’s the intimacy of the environment that is attractive but the real draw always was and always will be the quantity and quality of rare formations and wide variety of natural color that the legendary caverns offer.
“I’ve been to over 160 caves, including show caves worldwide and have to say we’re very blessed with the crystal content and coloration in Ohio Caverns,” Evans said.
During the cave tours offered year-round, visitors are treated to views of one-of-a-kind discoveries and rare finds. The “Crystal King” is the largest and most perfectly formed pure white crystal stalactite found in any cave. It is nearly five feet long after 200,000 years of growth, according to current dating techniques. It is found apart from other formations adding to its dramatic appearance in stark contrast to its surroundings. It is truly a king of stalactites.
Other rare stalactites found at Ohio Caverns are called helictites or “soda straws.” These resemble curly straws hanging from the ceiling. Somehow, they grow longer in a way that seems to defy gravity, twisting in weird directions up, down, sideways and all around.
One of the more intriguing formations is the “Old Town Pump,” which looks just like it sounds, right down to the dripping water. It must have been fun coming up with such names. It’s reminiscent of lying on your back, staring at puffy white cloud formations and with a little imagination, poof, there’s an old town pump!
These are the only known caverns in the country where dual formations are found. This oddity consists of iron oxide tipped off with milky white calcium carbonate. It is a mystery as to why the two minerals remain distinctly separate, refusing to blend colors. But it creates a picturesque contrast.
The main reason people love to visit here time and again is the wide-array of color. In addition to black and white, the plentiful stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations come in a variety of colors, including hues of yellow, orange, red, blue and purple. The colorful climax is best seen in the “Palace of the Gods” where there is an array of translucent crystals.
Lighting the caverns to reveal its magic was not always as it is today. In its early tour days, lanterns led the way. During the 1930s, rural electrification was a big advancement. A modern lighting system was introduced in the mid-1990s. Today, the new system is with LED lights. No colored lights are used so the formations reveal their natural color.
The older parts of the cavern system now known as the “Historic Tour” had been closed to the public for some 70 years before reopening. To enter here, visitors climb aboard a shuttle bus and take a short ride through the rolling woods to just about where the original sink hole was discovered, leading to the discovery of nature’s art carved below. Although this original section had been defaced through the early years of tourism, it still has unique features that souvenir seekers couldn’t break off and take with them.
There’s some interesting graffiti on overhead rocks in one stretch but the real treats in this section are a colorful natural rotunda named “The Palace of Natural Art” and an oddly shaped rock aptly named “The Giant’s Coffin.” In addition, there are other fascinating views such as the many primitive forms of sea life that are fossilized into the ceiling from the Devonian period and Paleozoic Era. It has only been since the early 2000s that visitors could once again visit this part of the cavern system.
Instead of taking a piece of the cave with you as a souvenir as early adventurers did, you now get a high-end souvenir photo snapped in the incredulous “Palace of the Gods.” But if you want to commemorate the visit with a souvenir rock, the gift shop is the place to go. Rock collecting has surged in popularity. And Ohio Caverns has gained a reputation as a premier rock shop. Sorry, there is no online store because photos of such specialized merchandise can’t really capture what it is you’re buying. Ohio Caverns has pieces ranging from a dollar to $10,000 in value. There are even machines to crack or saw stones like geodes and smooth them to perfection.
“We pride ourselves on the unique, hard-to-find gifts, including a variety of commemorative merchandise and antique signs,” said Evans. “Teachers enjoy the store because they discover, often after a field trip to the caverns, that there are great opportunities and support here for classroom tools, lessons, books, mineral samples and the “fossil digs.”
Ohio Caverns has developed a reputation for working with teachers and their curriculum requirements for different grade levels. Topics such as the study of ground water, ecology and sedimentary rocks can be integrated into a tour. Activities can be developed for classroom experiments such as crystal growth or erosion.
It is this sort of extra touch that a family-owned business seeks to make each group’s experience special. Ohio Caverns and 90 percent of tour caves in the United States are privately owned. It is one of the reasons it is such a personable and traditional experience.
“Many remember us as that nostalgic family day-trip that sparked intrigue and livey conversation on the way home in the station wagon,” Evans said. “Not much has changed.”
Evans is being modest. Ohio Caverns has been dubbed by various publications over the years as one of the best caves overall in the US. Current tour rates, times and other information to plan a visit are at www.OhioCaverns.com.
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!