Calling All Adventurers
A 333-foot history
Aaron Higgenbotham discovers a new cave on Cardwell Mountain near McMinnville, TN in 1810, about a mile away from already-known Henshaw Cave. Henshaw Cave was essentially a one-room cave but this new cave seemed endless. Aaron, an early surveyor and turnpike builder, names the new cave “Higgenbotham Cave“. Venturing into the cave alone, Higgenbotham was trapped on a high ledge for three days when his torch went out. According to local legend, his hair turned white by the time a rescue party could locate him.
The turnpike Higgenbotham built years earlier is used by the Cherokees to descend the mountain while on the Trail of Tears in 1838.
The name Shelah Waters and the date 1869 are inscribed on the walls in candle smoke, and scratched into the rock in many remote areas. This is the oldest confirmed name and date found in the cave.
A scientist, Thomas Bailey, visits Henshaw and Higgenbotham Caves to test the cave dirt for saltpeter. He notes that there are remnants from earlier saltpeter mining already in place in Henshaw Cave- Likely from the War of 1812 or the Civil War.
The National Speleological Society is established. Higgenbotham Cave is well-known to early NSS members and a favorite to visit.
Easter Weekend 1953, NSS Members Tom Barr, Tank Gorin and Dale Smith are surveying the smaller Henshaw Cave. Towards the back of the known cave they find a small, tight crawl that only the smallest of the three could enter. They find a connection to Higgenbotham Cave and Cumberland Caverns is born from the connection of these two caves. Later the passageway, nicknamed the “Meatgrinder”, is cleared of large boulders to allow cavers easier access to the larger parts of what was Higgenbotham Cave.
The development of portions of the now-connected cave system began in 1955 by Roy Davis and Tank Gorin with an agreement with the landowners, the Powell family. Electricity and a road officially reach the Henshaw entrance in 1956.
July 4, 1956- Roy Davis officially opens Cumberland Caverns to the public for tours.
The FIRST “Cavers Christmas” party is held on Dec 9, 1961. The tradition continues for many decades as a private party for NSS members, cavers and caving organizations.
NSS Cavers begin an official survey of the Cumberland Caverns Cave system in December of 1970.
Cumberland Caverns is designated as a “National Natural Landmark” in 1973. It is a distinction awarded to both public and private land by the National Park Service to recognize and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources. Cumberland Caverns is a privately-owned entity.
After many years of hard work surveying, cavers decide to stop so they can provide a “finished” map. Cumberland Caverns is now known to be at least 44.44 meters (27+ miles) but the leads not yet surveyed are distant and will take considerable time & effort to push.
On July 21, 1981 Roy Davis and friends finish the installation of the Chandelier around 4 am. He had saved the chandelier from certain destruction during a remodel of the Loews Metro Theatre in New York. Roy Announces the GRAND OPENINING of the WORLD’S FIRST UNDERGROUND THEATRE! It’s debut was to take place during the 8th annual International Union of Speleology Congress later that week. Many concerts, choirs and bands place in the “World Famous Volcano Room” over the next few decades.
Many of the scenes of international film “Secrets of the Phantom Caverns” is filmed in Cumberland Caverns. The movie is later renamed “What Waits Below”
In August 2008 the FIRST Bluegrass Underground concert takes place in Cumberland Caverns- The Steeldrivers. These concert series run for the next 10 years in the World Famous Volcano Room.
A new concert production series called Cumberland Caverns LIVE begins in the Volcano Room.
Today, Cumberland Caverns is known far and wide as a place many first fall in love with caves and the hobby of caving. Over 65 years of privately-owned stewardship, Cumberland Caverns continues it’s mission of both sharing the world of caves and caving with the public as well as protecting and conserving the cave for all future generations. It is the longest show cave in Tennessee and makes the list of longest caves in the United States and the world.
The National Natural Landmarks Program recognizes and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources. Sites are designated by the Secretary of the Interior for their condition, illustrative character, rarity, diversity, and value to science and education. The National Park Service administers the program and works cooperatively with landowners, managers, and partners to promote conservation and appreciation for our nation's natural heritage.