Cumberland Caverns is the birthplace of many caver careers. Some of the most well-known names in caving got there start right here on Cardwell Mountain. To truly understand the legacy this special place has had on the caver community we have to visit the history of two other caves by different names: Henshaw Cave and, most importantly, Higgenbotham Cave.
Henshaw Cave was a well-known cave here in Warren County, TN back in the early 1800s. It wasn’t exceptionally large, but it was full of nitrate-rich cave dirt. Crawling through a small entrance they would have dug our the dirt, leaching out the nitrates, adding a few key ingredients to produce saltpetre. This was then sent for processing to create much-needed black power for firing canons and rifles during wars in the 19th century.
Less than a mile hike up the mountain side another cave was soon discovered by a man named Aaron Higgenbotham! A truly remarkable cave that seemed endless and would test the determination and skill of many cavers. Higgenbotham Cave was heavily visited because not only did it have beautiful rooms and passageways that seemed to never end, but it was also just challenging enough to feel like you accomplished something making the long, muddy journey to the fabled “BIG ROOM” of the cave. It was a favorite of many TAG area cavers in the 40s and 50s, it’s name appearing in many grotto and National Speleological Society publications. This cave would be visited for almost 150 years by cavers far and wide, who left their names on the wall in carbide in the BIG ROOM (now known as the Volcano Room & Ten Acre Room). Names of people from all over the world are written on those walls, people who accomplished the the task of navigating through places like the Lemon Squeeze, Birth Canal and the boot-stealing Bubblegum Alley. Stories of caving trips from the Higgenbotham Cave entrance to the Big Room traveled far and wide, remarkable for a time before cell phones and the internet.
In 1953 Tom Barr (NSS892), Tank Gorin (NSS478) and Dale Smith made the pivotal discovery in the back of Henshaw Cave. The tiny cave that was unremarkable compared to neighboring Higgenbotham Cave? They were one and the same cave! A TIGHT crawl through breakdown covered in sharp cave coral and cave popcorn, a passage later aptly-named the “Meatgrinder”, led to the Oasis Room of Higgenbotham Cave! ALAST! All it would take is the meticulous removal of some breakdown and everyone would be a short 5-minute trip away from the FAMOUSE “Big Room” in the cave! This pivotal moment is what led to Roy Davis and Tank Gorin developing the cave for tours, renaming the Higgenbotham-Henshaw Cave System as “CUMBERLAND CAVERNS”! What our founders discovered in opening Cumberland Caverns was not just the discovery of the endless, underground passageways – They learned that part of the discovery during a caving trip is about yourself.
Today Cumberland Caverns is the ultimate adventure destination, with a tour appropriate for just about everyone. From a variety of walking tours appropriate for the whole family, to 4 different adventure tours at different skill levels to quench the thirst of any explorer, now the whole world can learn just how amazing this underground world is. Our tours are updated and ALL NEW in 2023, so if you have been here before now is the perfect time to return and learn something new. If you want to retrace the steps of those early cavers in the 1800s and early 1900s, check out the Higgenbotham’s Hollow adventure tour!
During the 70’s we expanded our understanding of the cave with dozens of cavers volunteering their time to push the limits of the far reaches of the cave. It went from a known 6 miles to a known 27.6 miles in just under ten years of dedicated exploration! Their survey was one of the best of that era, and a true testament to the dedication of cavers. Today we have started a new, modern survey to add newly-discovered passageways to that mileage, and to document all the layers of history Cumberland Caverns has to share with us. This new survey will have georeferenced inventory so we can notate interesting geology, fossils, cave wildlife and historic graffiti of those early explorers. It will likely take years for us to finish this project, but every trip will add something new to our understanding of the cave. We will continue to improve our tours and add these new discoveries to them, so you, too, can be a part of the unearthing of history and science here at Cumberland Caverns.
I hope you will join us as we discover more about our cave and improve our guest experience. I think you will find that the journey on a tour is more than learning about our cave- It will truly allow your mind to expand, to prove to yourself what you are capable of, and to add the experience to your memories for a lifetime. We all go in the cave as one person and emerge as someone else familiar, yet changed in a subtle way. Our identity is tied to those memorable journeys we seek out in life.
We are a collection of our experiences, let’s add caving to your collection.