Grand Caverns by Robert Boucheron

In 1804, on a farm on the Shenandoah River a few miles from Harrisonburg, Virginia, a young man named Bernard Weyer thrust a spade into what he thought was a groundhog den. The earth collapsed into a much bigger hole, “a subterranean fairyland of unbelievable beauty,” according to Nancy B. Hess in The Heartland: Rockingham County. Two years later, “Weyers Cave” opened for tours, making it “the oldest continually operating show cave in the United States.”
Since 1806, the cave Weyer found has gone through several owners and changes of name, including “Grottoes of the Shenandoah.” Holly Stover bought the property in 1926 and changed the name to Grand Caverns. In 1973 the Department of the Interior declared the site a National Natural Landmark. The owner at the time was Gladys Kellow. In 1974 Miss Kellow gave the property to the Upper Valley Regional Park Authority, and in 2009 that body gave it to the Town of Grottoes. The land surface is laid out as a public park, where people can hike, bike, fish, play mini-golf, pitch horseshoes, run and stretch on an exercise trail, and swim in a concrete pool in the summer. The cave is open year-round.
The Shenandoah Valley has about ten such caves on private property. In the United States, the National Park Service owns and operates some big and spectacular caves, including Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Caverns exist in all but two states, and they number in the thousands. A few hundred are open to the public as small-scale business enterprises. Grand Caverns is uniquely municipal.
In December, the Grottoes Ruritan Club sponsors Caroling in the Caverns, where you can sing “Christmas carols in a venue like no other.” Grand Caverns is a Civil War historic site. Battles were fought nearby, and troops from both North and South camped in the cave. Many soldiers wrote their names and dates on the walls. They left things behind. These and other items such as lamps and a metal ladder, from over two hundred years of visits, are displayed in a large wooden building at the entrance to the cave. Here also are museum exhibits on the geological formation of the cave and its weird wildlife.
The Shenandoah Valley Railroad was completed in 1880. Trains increased traffic and boosted business. The railroad inspired a string of hotels along its route to welcome summer vacationers and invalids, for whom the valley air was touted as pure and restorative. These picturesque, rambling structures had porches, turrets, elaborate woodwork, and grand dining rooms. Built entirely of wood, most have burned to the ground, including one in the town of Grottoes, which had a brief boom in the 1880s. A few miles away, the Brandon Hotel was built in 1890 in Waynesboro, Virginia. Later equipped with sprinklers, it was known as Fairfax Hall, a secondary school for girls, and later still as a police training academy. The building was restored in 2000 as affordable apartments for senior citizens.
I visit Grand Caverns on a warm May afternoon. The Stone Lodge, built in 1926, is a large, two-story, rustic cottage of local gray limestone, half-timber, and stucco. The ground floor rooms, which may have been used for entertainment as they are rather grand, harbor a gift shop and ticket sales. Living quarters were upstairs, now unoccupied and used for storage.
The gift shop has no guide book, map, or pamphlet, and only one picture postcard. I buy a ticket for the guided tour. As I wait for it to start, I browse displays of T-shirts, stickers, children’s books on ecology, stuffed animals, and mineral samples from around the world. Outside again, I walk up a long ramp to the cave entrance, where I loiter in the museum. At last, about ten of us are summoned to a plain steel door painted white. Behind the door lies the geological marvel.
Our guide is B. J., a man about age sixty-five in a white polo shirt, hunting vest, and gray goatee. Like the rest of the staff of fifteen to twenty, he is a local resident. Like many hereabouts, he has an ancestor who fought in the Confederate Army. We walk single file through the cave on a path of crushed stone, or stand in a clump in an open gallery. B. J. rattles off scientific facts, historical data, and stories from memory. He comments on the veracity of the stories. He repeats comments made by previous visitors from around the world. He takes questions and parries smart remarks. You cannot get the better of B. J.
The tour of Grand Caverns takes up to ninety minutes. It follows a route that was widened in places with the help of dynamite. Steps are carved in the solid rock, and metal pipe handrails are attached to walls. In the nineteenth century, deposits of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) were mined for use in making gunpowder, as in other caves. Bat guano was mined for use as fertilizer, as it is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. To preserve the cave, visitors today are told to bring nothing in and take nothing out.
Strange shapes that took thousands of years to form can be broken easily. As in a museum, you must not touch. The oil from your fingers can stop the slow process of crystallization. And the ecosystem of a cave is delicate. Removing a single organism—a cricket, a ghostly fungus, a white crayfish—can alter the balance for years to come.
Electric lights are provided throughout, the bulbs hidden from view. Stapled to the stone wall, a bundle of electrical cables runs alongside the path. The lighting of the better stone formations is colorful and theatrical, more razzle-dazzle than strictly educational. In the 1800s, visitors carried candles, pine torches, magnesium flares, and lanterns. Permanent lighting was first installed in 1889. Photographs are allowed.
If the modern tour requires no awkward scrambling or dangerous open flames, the cave is cold and damp. It maintains a constant temperature of fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, and water drips more or less everywhere. If it drips on you, B. J. says, call it a “cave kiss.” The metal handrails are wet to the touch, and the path is slick where it crosses bare rock. The wet stone glistens and sparkles. Pools of still water reflect like mirrors.
The stone formations are mainly white calcite (calcium carbonate, or limestone). The way they form is analogous to freezing. Calcite dissolves easily, flows underground through cracks and porous layers, and precipitates where it meets open air. Stalactites resemble icicles, then. The sheet flows, rippling draperies, and complex shapes recall coats of ice left by a winter storm near a lake or the sea. The calcite may be colored by minerals. Here, iron oxide is the most common, producing yellow to orange shades. Red and purple occur. Green and blue, from copper compounds, are found in other caves.
The white formations look ghostly in the general blackness, and the fluid shapes look like monsters in a dream. They inhabit narrow passages and great voids eroded over eons by the underground streams. Countless side passages lead to the unknown. Chasms yawn at your feet. Vaults overhead show signs of collapse. Millions of years ago, layers of sedimentary rock were forced upward in a “hairpin buckle.” What you see from inside are sheets of bedrock turned on edge. This combination of lightless voids and writhing masses, with no horizontal or vertical lines, cut off from the world of normal sight and sound, is genuinely spooky. At one point, when we are deep in the cave, B. J. flips a switch, and all the lights go out. Darkness is total, panic is imminent, and everyone holds their breath to hear . . . absolutely nothing.
In the course of our tour, B. J. uses a red laser pen to point to certain sculptural formations. He tells us what they are called, and he apologizes for the hokey names. There are organ pipes, angel wings, and underworld themes—the Devil, Hades, and the River Styx. Dante’s Inferno is off to the side and bathed in red electric light. Some of the names are on target. One gallery contains a graceful Flying Bridge. A group of diminutive pinnacles in an alcove does look like a city diorama, or Little Manhattan.
The largest gallery is Cathedral Hall, 280 feet long and 70 feet high. It has the look and sound reverberation of a large church. No church services are recorded, but balls have been danced here since 1836, with live music. A free-standing stalagmite in the middle of the floor recalls a white marble statue of George Washington, wrapped in a cloak and larger than life.
The most peculiar feature is the “shield,” a disc of limestone a few feet in diameter that projects from a wall or hangs in space. Grand Caverns has hundreds of shields, more than any other cave. The shields hang at all angles and from each other. Scientists do not know how they formed. Shields are double, like a pair of plates or cymbals, with a thin void in the middle. One theory is that water under pressure sprayed from a crack, and waterborne calcite solidified before it could drip.
Florid examples of Late Gothic architecture, sprouting crockets and dripping with carved limestone ornament, resemble caves. Or caves resemble Late Gothic architecture. But we are apt to see things that aren’t there. Pareidolia is the clinical name for this “tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Common examples are the shapes we assign to clouds, a face seen in a fogged window, and a message in tea leaves. In a vague stone flow, what you see depends on your cultural bias, as well as your angle of vision. An Irish harp? It helps to stand in the right spot.
When we emerge from Grand Caverns, B. J. tells us that in 2004 more cave galleries were discovered, greater in extent than those we had just visited. To preserve them, these undisturbed areas will remain “forever wild,” protected by federal law and closed to the public. A map of these galleries hangs near the exit, which returns you to the museum.
If you hanker for the good old days, Grand Caverns manages nearby Fountain Cave, which welcomes school groups and children at least twelve years old. The website calls Fountain Cave:
a former commercial cave that has not been open to the public for almost one hundred years! There are no lights inside the cavern . . . The tour lasts approximately two hours. You’ll get suited with helmets, headlights, knee pads and gloves. For a less adventurous experience, you can use the 1800s pathway. Or opt to have a true caving experience with opportunities for strenuous climbing & crawling.
If the true caving experience has no appeal, you can hear the Great Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, bask in the Grotto of the Gods at Shenandoah Caverns, or admire the anthodites (stone flowers) at Skyline Caverns. In the stifling heat of summer, what is more delicious than a cool cave? Water trickles through crystal gardens where flowers never wilt in the sun, and dreams endure, shielded from the pitiless light of day. Time slows to a stop. All is still, except for the beating of your own heart.

About the Author:

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Flash Nonfiction Food, Lowestoft Chronicle, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.