Historic National Landmark
U.S. National Natural Landmark – Caves and Cavern History
Cumberland Caverns located in McMinnville, Tennessee, is one of the most extensive known caves in America. Portions of this caving system were originally known as Higgenbotham Cave and Henshaw Cave. Considerable exploration of previously unseen sections along with integration of the two caves substantially enlarged Cumberland Caverns to the more than 32 miles that can be toured today.
Surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham discovered Higgenbotham Cave (now a national landmark) in 1810. Venturing into the cave alone, he was trapped for three days on a high ledge when his torch went out. According to local legend, his hair had turned white by the time a rescue party found him. Aaron Higgenbotham did not penetrate very far underground, but shortly after the close of the Civil War, someone explored for over a mile in Higgenbotham Cave and discovered a huge avenue–60 ft. wide, 10 ft. high, and 2000 ft. long–the “Ten Acre Room.” The name “Shelah Waters” and the date “1869″ are inscribed on the walls in candle smoke or scratched into the rock in many rather remote areas. This is the oldest name and date in the cave. Higgenbotham Cave is mentioned in old histories of Warren County as a local attraction, and Thomas L. Bailey in “Resources of Tennessee” first described it in print for 1918.
Nitrates were mined in the earth of Henshaw Cave, both during the war of 1812 and during the War Between the States. Leaching vats are preserved in the cave, and a small pick and hoe had been found by digging nearby in the floor. Calcium nitrate occurs in the cave soil; its mode of deposition is imperfectly understood. Cave soil was leached in wooden hoppers with wood ashes. Ion exchange between the niter and potash took place, and crude saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder could be crystallized from the liquor, which was boiled in huge kettles six feet in diameter. The term “keel dirt” was applied to the niter-containing earth, and the leached mud was called “lixivated earth.” Wooden paddles for stirring the material in the vats are occasionally found in saltpeter caves.
Members of the National Speleological Society began exploration of Higgenbotham Cave in 1945. A new entrance was discovered in 1950, only 240 yards from the historic entrance. It is reached only by crawling through a tight hole chipped in a curtain of flowstone; it was called the “Onyx Curtain Entrance.” In 1953 it was discovered that Henshaw Cave was separated from a chamber adjacent to the Ten Acre Room by an extensive breakdown. An artificially enlarged opening now connects the two caves, making it very easy to reach the more important centers of exploration near the Ten Acre Room.
Shortly after the discovery of the Henshaw Cave Entrance, a whole new series of galleries were penetrated and came to be called the Great Extension. Gypsum deposits of profusion and beauty were encountered in this area that contains seven miles of passages. Development of portions of the system, including the Henshaw Cave and the Ten Acre Room, was undertaken in 1955 and the name was changed “Cumberland Caverns.”
Since that time, thousands of visitors have been able to enjoy caving adventures in the remarkable features of this wondrous Tennessee Cavern.