The trip - part 5
On Sunday, we decided to go and visit a cavern. We had gone to the Bristol Caverns, quite nearby, last year, and I saw that there was something called the Appalachian Caverns a bit farther away and seeming much more raw. But my son, having heard about caverns where the stalagmites and tites are used to create an organ thought that we should go there. I am an organist – so he felt it would mean a lot to me. However, this new place, called Luray Caverns was a huge distance away – 240 miles. I didn't offer to help drive– as my experience of doing so in America these days often ends up with me on the wrong side of the road. My son drives, but prefers not to, so poor Jenny had both directions to do on her own.
We started about 10 and stopped after a few hours for a meal. My son chose lamb chops. We used to have lots of lamb at home, but it isn't often on the menu in the States. I had a steak and Jenny had chicken. It was a good meal, but slow service meant that our trip was delayed even more. And the traffic was heavy. There were road works frequently along the route – the Smokey Mountain Parkway. Eventually we found our way, and arrived about 3.30.
One of the things about the trip that pleased me, was the number of towns and cities that we passed that reminded me of Civil War Battles. I wrote a book called Anna Moffett's Civil War – based on some real letters that I was given by a relative of hers. She was from Charleston, South Carolina – not far away- and my book details the battles (Harrisonburg, Fredricksburg, Harper's Ferry, Lexington) that her sons and sons-in-law were involved in. Now I was seeing those battlefields – looking green and beautiful - but I could imagine the blue and grey uniforms lined up, and the guns on their carriages being pushed up the hillsides, the dying and dead being carried off, and the victory celebrations.
I bought our tickets and we were told we had to go outside and have our photos taken. The excuse is for security reasons – because if someone didn't come back out of the caverns, they would have a picture to go by to know who they were looking for. But the real reason, was another chance to fleece the tourist. We had no choice, so we lined up and did as we were told.
We then had to wait in the queue for our guide – a young girl in her late teens probably, who had a nice deep slow voice, but knew few of the answers to the questions asked by the public.
I've been in lots of caverns over the years, but this one was quite easy to access. There were strong railings all along the descent down, and the steps were wide and not too steep. The floor was tiled, and although there were places where water had seeped through, we never felt that it was slippery underfoot.
Our party was about 50 strong, and the guide often started talking about whatever feature she was displaying before all of the group had caught up. Jenny politely suggested she might want to wait a bit, but she took no notice. I suppose they had an hour to do the tour, and they had worked out how much time each little stop was allowed to occupy.
The caverns were large (apparently the largest in the Eastern US) and very dramatic. There were bits that looked very like falls of fabric,(pictured above) and others that resembled fairy castles. An area where there was a lake, the reflection was so clear, that it appeared that the stalactites met stalagmites and there was no bottom to the lake.
But the piece de resistence was as we knew it would be, the Stalapipe Organ. That particular chamber was the largest and most densely filled with the stalactites and mites. The music on the “lithophone” was created by having solenoid strikers that tap stalagtites of various sizes to produce tones similar to those of xylophones, tuning forks or bells. We all were very quiet while a hymn was played, and we noticed several notes missing, and a few that didn't sound quite true. But it was very impressive, none the less.
The caves are “active” which means the new formations are still being deposited at the rate of about one cubic inch every 120 years.
Draperies are abundant throughout the cavern and one of the best examples is Saracen's Tent considered the most well-formed drapery in the world. There are several tiers of galleries, and the
vertical depth from the highest to the lowest is 260 feet.
Luray Caverns were discovered on August 13, 1878 by five local men, including Andrew J. Campbell (a local tinsmith), his 13-year-old nephew Quint, and local photographer Benton Stebbins. Their attention had been attracted by a protruding limestone outcrop and by a nearby sinkhole noted to have cool air issuing from it. The men started to dig and, about four hours later, a hole was created for the smallest men to squeeze through, slide down a rope and explore by candlelight. Upon entering the area called Skeleton's Gorge, bone fragments (among other artifacts) were found embedded in calcite. Other traces of previous human occupation included pieces of charcoal, flint and human bone fragments embedded in stalagmite. A skeleton, thought to be that of a native
American girl, found in one of the chasms, was estimated, from the current rate of stalagmite growth, to be not more than 500 years old. Her remains may have slipped into the caverns after her burial hole collapsed due to a sinkhole.
Sam Buracker of Luray owned the land on which the cavern entrance was found. Because of uncollected debts, a court-ordered auction of all his land was held on September 14, 1878.
Andrew Campbell, William Campbell, and Benton Stebbins purchased the cave tract, but kept their discovery secret until after the sale. Because the true value of the property was not realized until after the purchase, legal wrangling ensued for the next two years with attempts to prove fraud and decide rightful ownership.
Despite the legal disputes, rumors of the caverns' impressive formations spread quickly. Professor Jerome Collins, an Arctic explorer, postponed his departure on an ill-fated North Pole expedition to visit the caverns. The Smithsonian Institution sent a delegation of nine scientists to investigate. The next edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica devoted an unprecedented page and a half to the cave's wonders and a correspondent for the New York Times was the first professional travel writer to visit and popularize the Caverns.
In 1901, the cool, supposedly pure air of Luray Caverns was forced through the rooms of the Limair Sanatorium erected on the summit of Cave Hill and listed as the first air-conditioned home in the United States. On the hottest day in summer, the interior of the house was kept at a cool and comfortable 70 °F . By sinking a shaft five feet in diameter down to a cavern chamber and installing a 42-inch fan powered by a 5 horsepower electric motor, the system could circulate the air through the entire house about every four minutes. Tests made over successive years by means of culture media and sterile plates, were considered to have demonstrated the "perfect bacteriologic purity" of the air, purportedly a benefit to those suffering various respiratory illnesses.
When we finally emerged from the caverns, or guide had her hand out for tips, and those who had taken the pictures asked us to pay $30 for our one large and two small copies of an Instamatic picture. It wasn't a bad picture, but I felt like I was being yet again taken advantage of. I refused to buy ours. But then when we were sitting outside I saw how disappointed the others were, and remembered that I had no photos of my trip to share with people back home, so I got Jenny to run back inside and tell them we had changed our minds. When I next went to their house she had scanned the picture and was using it as wallpaper on her laptop.
We started immediately back and arrived at my motel about 10. It was an exhausting drive but a trip well worth taking.
Our last full day was filled with Jenny travelling to a shopping centre some hours away to pick up her birthday present for my son. He opted to stay home, and I finished another of my books. On her way back, she picked me up, and we spent a very pleasant afternoon playing canasta.
I have already described our Japanese birthday meal, and I left the next day, after doing a bit of shopping for my daughters and grandkids at home.
All in all, it was a very busy and fulfilling week, and I was so pleased that Jenny and her son and my son were doing so very well together. I dreaded the long trip home, but everything was on time. Apart for quite a lot of turbulence during the first hour of the flight, everything went very well, and I arrived home a week after I had departed.