Rock Reveal - Caves & Caverns
I have seen a lot of rock lately, and it was a long way from a geology class years ago at Clemson. From Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, to the majestic Grand Canyon’s South Rim in Arizona, I have simply been amazed at our Creator’s glorious gifts expressed in the amazing beauty of sedimentary rock.
The natural layering of rock, and the minerals within, forms the perfect palate of color with composition and structure that is beyond comparison. Here at home, we have our own array of artwork in sedimentary rock, which lies just below the earth’s surface in caves and caverns. According to Tennessee Cave Survey, Inc. (TCS), Tennessee has over 9,500 mapped caves. For this reason, Tennessee is known as "the state" with the most caves in the United States.
Beginning in northeast Tennessee, two of these underground jewels, Appalachian Caverns and Bristol Caverns, which are members of the National Caves Association (NCA) and open to the public, are both simply a must see.
Along with brothers Tom and Charles, Bristol native Gary Barnett worked as a tour guide during high school at Bristol Caverns, never imaging that one day the three would actually own the cave, which they purchased in 1981.
Barnett, who is also a minister, oversees the cave operations, while the other brothers are involved with the funeral business.
“A lot of people kid us that we’ll get them under the ground one way or the other,” joked Barnett.
Caves have a certain lore associated with them, and it’s interesting to hear about their backgrounds.
“The commercial entrance was first discovered in 1863,” said Barnett. “The Indians used the cave here for a few years.”
Legend has it that Native Americans actually used the Bristol Caverns as an escape route, where they would use grapevines to drop into the cave’s historical entrance and disappear underground with the river.
“The original owner, a fellow by the name of Hitt, began work on the cave in the late 30s and early 40s, and he hired a lot of the soldiers coming back from the war during World War II,” explained Barnett. “They [the Hitt family] owned the property…, and he purchased the underground rights by trading nine acres of good farmland for all of the cave because the cave went under other property.”
Barrett notes that these servicemen did a lot of the actual digging out by hand, and although Barrett possesses newspaper articles that reference even earlier tours, the cave officially opened as a tourist attraction in 1944.
Updated, beautifully lighted paths with railings take visitors 180 feet below ground, where they can experience an underground stream and glimpse the original, historical entrance. Breathtaking stalactites hang from the ceiling and stalagmites seemingly grow from the ground.
Over the years, notable cave formations resemble Santa Claus, a cheeseburger, mother eagle, and others. There is even a “bridal veil” area, where weddings have been held, and a meeting room, where former Bristol, Virginia’s Mayor Preston supposedly held meetings before air conditioning.
The most notable column, simply known as “Gigantus,” resides in a remote area of the cave that is not on the tour.
“It measures 74 feet around the base, and is about 52 feet high. It’s actually three columns fused together and is one of the largest in the country,” said Barnett.
With Appalachian Caverns in Blountville, Tennessee, the cave’s lineage is also quite fascinating. Opened to the public in 1991, the caverns closed in 2003 and were reopened by the current “steward,” Roger Hartley, in 2004.
According to Hartley, the Linvilles were the first white settlers in the area, and this family was followed by their relative, Daniel Boone, who inherited the cave. Years later, the cave was owned by the Woods family who sold it to John Crocket, Davy Crockett’s father.
“Both of our most famous pioneers and trailblazers had ownership in the cave at some point,” explained Hartley. “We actually have an historian that pulled up deeds that explained the tie-in to the Crocketts. When the Boones were here, it was not a deeded land at that point, but there were papers written to the territorial governor in North Carolina because Tennessee didn’t exist, and that was conveyance of the property to the next of kin, which happened to be Daniel Boone.”
Hartley points out that in Tennessee, cave owners actually own to the core of the earth unless mineral rights have been sold or the state claims imminent domain to take over the cave.
For now, Hartley attests to simply being the “steward of Appalachian Caverns,” and a welcome sign invites visitors to know the owner.
“Basically, anything that you can toss up in the air and command to stay is what you own,” said Hartley. “We’re considered stewards because we look after the land, and the owner, of course, is God.”
Just as with the Grand Canyon, the time factor on the age of caves and caverns is also one of constant inquiry and debate.
“When we talk about the time criteria, we do give you some estimates that the scientists will do, but really, that’s all based on man’s guesswork,” explained Hartley. “Whenever the Creator put it here, that’s the way it happened, and whatever timeframe that was, I’m okay with it.”
Like Bristol Caverns, Appalachian Caverns is also open year-round, yet there are a few different tours. From the standard walking tour, which is an hour-long dry tour, to the two- hour explore tour, or the over three-hour wild tour, where you get soaking wet and muddy, this adventure offers something for every level of interest, and group tours are also available.
Hartley truly enjoys the Appalachian Caverns and, personally, along with guide manager Randy Smith, leads many of the wild tours himself through muddy areas, water, and tight squeezes that test both physical and mental endurance.
“It’s extremely fun to watch people help one another out and the bonding and team building” explained Hartley.
Visitors can also be in total darkness within the cave, which Hartley did for us and often will do for church youth groups, and this level of darkness was truly unbelievable.
Two creeks, Evans Branch and Linville Creek, actually come into the cave, and natural springs create a very soothing and tranquil environment. At one point, natural light filters in beautifully, reflecting off the water into the cave.
Openings allow breezes, and Hartley explained that caves and caverns have often been used as makeshift hospitals – especially during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
“It was a place to get away from the enemy to rest and recoup, but as it worked out, the enriched oxygen and the higher moisture content actually aid in healing time, cut down on scar tissue, and prevent harmful bacteria that cause infection in humans,” said Hartley.
Today, extensive living in caves would probably cause pneumonia due to the high level of moisture.
“The reason the early settlers didn’t get that is they did chase their food down, use the full capacity of their lungs, and pumped out all of that moisture,” said Hartley. “They didn’t drive to Wal-Mart or Food City.”
For additional information on Bristol Caverns, visit www.bristolcaverns.com
and Appalachian Caverns at www.appacaverns.com. Or, visit the NCA at www.cavern.com.