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Notes from Underground

A journey through Western Pennsylvania's show caves

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Today, we speed through on interstates; the ritual of stopping along back roads to see the World's Largest You-Name-It is giving way to the convenience of off-ramp emporiums. Yet folks lured by billboards still pull over and descend into show caves to marvel at nature's strangeness. Unlike other roadside attractions whose lure may have been whimsical or later usurped by modernity, caves have an intrinsic enduring quality. The experience of visiting a cave cannot be replicated artificially: There will always be something exciting about going underground and discovering the earth's secrets.

Pennsylvania has nine show caves, five of which -- Penn's Cave, Coral Caverns, Indian Caverns, Lincoln Caverns/Whisper Rocks and Laurel Caverns -- are within day-trip driving distance of Pittsburgh. While none are right around the corner, they're all in scenic areas with other nearby attractions. Make a day of it: Take in a cave and something above ground -- or with an early start, you can hit at least two caves in one day. And you'll want to see more than one; because caves are created naturally, no two are alike.

Regardless of the cave's size, a ticket generally buys an hour's worth of underground experience and will likely include: the story of the cave's discovery, the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, a moment of total darkness, a few colored lights, formations that resemble famous structures above-ground and a stern warning not to touch anything.

Besides the odd modern touches -- doors to caves that have to be unlocked with keys, or light switches incongruously embedded in cave walls -- these caves have been slightly modified for your ease with pathways (the tallest visitors may have to duck occasionally), stairs, guide rails and illumination. Bring your jacket -- caves keep a steady temperature in the low 50s -- and your camera: You don't get down into the earth like this very often.

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A cave is more than an absence of dirt -- creating one requires a good deal of geological activity under just the right conditions over millions of years. The caves in our region formed when water passed through limestone -- itself an accumulation of organic remains from ancient oceans, a layer that time has forced closer to the earth's surface -- dissolving or eroding away anything from a crack to huge rooms. The subsequent flow of water can carve out new areas, making the cave deeper and longer, and trickles and drips -- which can pick up minerals from the ground or from traveling through the limestone -- create the unique formations that send us underground to goggle.

This is a place of geological spectacle where rocks resemble translucent draped curtains, boulders have erupted into sparkly pimples, glistening walls appear to be sloughing away in a frozen ooze, hallways bend and twist, symmetrical totems link floor to ceiling, and ceilings are covered in spiky sticks of rock like an inverted bed of nails.

Nature, however quixotic, seems partial to certain creations. Touring these caves, I repeatedly encountered devil's pits, statues of liberty, leaning towers of Pisa, gardens of the gods and frozen Niagara Falls. But only Indian Caverns had the "room of the fireflies." This was a small chamber that the indigenous Native Americans were reputedly afraid to enter, for they felt it harbored bad spirits. For us, the lights are extinguished and, miraculously, little green spots glow from the low ceiling, the result of small radium deposits: That's cool.

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Cave tours often have a goofy sort of charm, a mixture of entertainment and education, with a superlative or two tossed in. No doubt there are purists who feel a cave's natural attributes ought to suffice, but marketing enhancements needn't detract from the caves' own beauty nor reflect poorly on the sincerity of their caretakers: We like to be entertained, as well as enlightened.

Many show caves are family-owned, offering a welcome alternative to the bland generica of corporate attractions; each cave owner puts his own stamp on the attraction. Decades ago, the proprietor of Penn's Cave re-routed the tour to show off his small hydroelectric facility, notable at a time when the cave had electricity before the surrounding rural area. Visitors to Whisper Rocks receive a blessing from its discoverer via a posted prayer at the cave's entrance. And speaking of individualism, outside the door of Indian Caverns, a brass plaque -- placed in 1979 on the attraction's 50th anniversary -- reads: "a testimonial to the American Dream and the free-enterprise system, how all of this was accomplished without taxpayer dole, government subsidy or federal aid...boggles the mind!"

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As heralded by dozens of roadside billboards, Penn's Cave invites visitors to "see it by boat." Here, 20 visitors are piloted through the dripping cave via a half-mile of underwater stream, through the occasional passage that's not much wider than the boat, and out onto the artificially created Lake Nitanee. The trip is then reversed, and a different set of features are pointed out. This tour is partial to identifying the formations in fanciful ways -- a fisherman, Buddha, the Strait of Gibraltar and a convenient Nittany lion.

What one trades off for the ease of boat travel is a cave's inherent mysterious atmosphere. As charming as gliding over water past fantastic formations sounds, the boats' gasoline outboard motors reverberate in the close water-filled tunnel. Passengers on our boat asked about the possible detrimental effect of the gas exhaust on the cave. What went unsaid was: This would be a nicer ride without the noise and the exhaust fumes.



While caves have endured as tourist destinations, their appeal is changing. Many show caves were opened in the 1920s and '30s during the ascension of automobile travel, and their development paralleled the rise of other roadside attractions and amenities. Back then, says Ann Molosky, general manager of Lincoln Caverns, "Caves were seen primarily for their entertainment value. A cave tour would have jokes, imagination formations -- what the rocks look like – a lot of colored lights. It was more showy.

"The trend has really changed. People are seeing the value of caves, and why they're important -- to our groundwater system, as important habitats for bats and other species, and that they're fascinating scientifically. A lot of people enjoy nature, and they look at caves today for the natural features that they are."

The manager of nearby Indian Caverns, Aden Wertz, agrees: "Recently, our tour guides have been offering more informative geological tours -- especially with school groups. People are more interested; instead of just saying this rock looks like this, and this rock looks like that, they want to know how did this rock get here, how long ago and what are the minerals in it."

At Coral Caverns, near Bedford, the highlight and namesake of the cave is its fossilized coral reef wall, the only one in Pennsylvania. Other caves have floors with fossils, left over from when water covered these regions. But here, the earth has shifted, moving the fossilized strata into a vertical position, hence the wall that is studded with the remains of coral, sea worms and long-ago entombed shellfish.

On this tour, we're also shown the "witch's den," where under a rock, the guide informs us, there's a "witch who eats bad tourists." What's a bad tourist? "People who touch the rocks," the guide deadpans.

In the earlier days of cave tourism, visitors felt free to touch the rocks -- the hanging stalactites almost beg to be grabbed. But oil from one's skin impedes the flow of water over still-growing formations or causes discoloration. Some caves allowed visitors to break off souvenirs, and in most caves, there's clear evidence of more careless times. Today, the Pennsylvania Cave Protection Act of 1990 makes it a crime to damage any part of a cave. For curious hands, some caves have set aside an already damaged formation for hands-on examination: At Indian Caverns, visitors can reach into a large broken stalactite and tap on a "musical rock" that makes a dull chime when thumped -- as well as tut-tut at 19th-century graffiti.

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Besides its underground corridors and various formations, Indian Caverns touts two narratives that emphasize the human side of the cave's history. For centuries, Native Americans used the cave, as evidenced by the large quantities of displayed artifacts that were recovered during the cave's contemporary explorations. A large stalactite-filled room near the entrance is believed to have been an Indian council room, and one can imagine its bizarre ornateness serving as the well-appointed boardroom of its day.

But that's not all. The cave was also the hideout of robber David Lewis in the early 1800s, and supposedly he hid his pilfered gold within the cave's depths, or "the lost tunnels." At this announcement from the guide, every member of the tour group unconsciously looks about, as if the glint of buried treasure might suddenly flicker.

One might idly speculate that owning a cave -- even a cave that isn't holding a bandit's treasure -- is like having an attractive hole in the ground that mints money. David Cale, owner of Laurel Caverns, cautions: "It may seem profitable because visitors see all these other people, but the problem with the cave business is that it's very seasonal. There's a high capital cost -- buildings, insurance, land, maintenance -- and a very high marketing cost."

Ironically, even a federal act designed to preserve our nation's natural beauty proved problematic. Explains Indian's Wertz: "What really hurt the business was when they passed Ladybird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act [in 1965]. Road signs had been how we got a lot of our visitors; we had hundreds of them all over the state. After the Highway Beautification Act was passed, we had to take down most of them. Now we only have about 25 signs, and most are close to the cave." Maybe only the charming ones are left standing, but how could anyone not see the appeal of a painted sign set in a cornfield that reads: "You Will Love Lincoln Caverns"?



Beyond the legends of robbers and the pretty colored lights, caves hold a more primal attraction. As sure as man desires to go up -- to crest the highest peaks -- he also is drawn down, into the subterranean otherworld, a place with its own unique beauty. Like being in outer space, you're now in a place you couldn't ordinarily be.

Visiting a cave is multi-sensory, and is best explored on foot; a body in motion is more acutely attuned to its surroundings, especially when those surroundings appear to defy what we know about how our world is put together. Below the earth's presumably solid surface, walls ripple and passageways skew at crazy angles like an all-rock funhouse.

At the still-active Lincoln Caverns, the ceiling drips and its walls are slick; this cave feels alive, and its growth -- albeit at approximately one cubic inch per 120 years -- actually seems discernible. Here and in its sister cave, Whisper Rocks, the lights are well recessed, set unobtrusively into the cave walls, creating a space that feels dark and mysterious, even as its formations are accentuated. Manager Molosky laughs: "If it was up to me, we wouldn't even have electric lights in there."

But without lights, we'd miss the cave's sparkling calcite crystals, the fragile soda straws -- stalactites in the making whose tips each hold a single tremulous drop of water -- the rocks folded like accordion pleats, or the helictites, mutant stalactites growing at weird angles.

Despite its smaller size and its fairy-castle-like beauty, Whisper Rocks appears wild and undiscovered. "During the exploration and development of the '20s, '30s and '40s, people didn't know what we know now about caves," says Molosky. "There wasn't this concern for preserving something that took thousands of years to form. Whisper Rocks has been so well preserved -- you're seeing what my father found in 1941."

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On a Saturday morning, Laurel Caverns is a hive of activity -- underground. According to cave owner David Cale, "Laurel Caverns is the only developed cave in the world where the biggest and best rooms are preserved completely in their natural state for caving." The cave offers 28 different programs: You can sign up for activities as diverse as rappelling or a three-hour cave tour -- old-school style with hardhat, flashlight and a guarantee of getting dirty. Or, you can take the guided tour where you only have to remember to pack a light jacket.

Laurel Caverns is a catacomb cave, a labyrinth of corridors that twist away from our path into darkness. The narrow passageways that lead us up, down and around, and often intersect each other, are reminiscent of a maze. Even the guided tour remains in flux. "We have three miles of passages -- we change the route all the time," Cale says. "You never see the same tour twice."

This is a mostly dry cave: We're walking through very fine reddish sand along wiggly walls -- "upside-down Grand Canyons" that were carved away by erstwhile streams. Cale describes Laurel as a "hands-on" cave, and this is one cave where you can touch the walls all you like. In a few tight, steep places, grabbing the adjacent wall is certainly useful.

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Every new generation discovers caves, even if they're holding dad's hand at the time. Kids, particularly, seem to love caves -- there's the secret nature of them, the spooky lighting or lack thereof, the weird chill and the mixture of science, entertainment and stuff that just looks cool. Cale explains, "A cave is educational. Young people get interested in learning when it's exciting."

Molosky agrees that a universal goal among cave owners is "to help excite kids about rocks and geology." But the thrill of hard science notwithstanding, she can't resist telling me about the upcoming annual Halloween haunted cave tour in Lincoln Caverns. "We do special scripts -- once we did Edgar Allen Poe's ‘The Raven' re-written to tell how a cave forms. They come to get scared, but then they still have to learn about the cave."



Penn's Cave
Rt. 192, Centre Hall, 18 miles east of State College. 814-364-1664. www.pennscave.com

Year opened
: 1885
Tagline: "See it by boat"
Prices: $11.25; $5.25 for under 12
Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily June 1-Aug. 31; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily Sept.-Nov. and Feb. 15-May; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends in Dec.
Nearby attractions: Wildlife park on site, Pennsylvania Military Museum

A steep set of steps descends through the trees toward the mouth of the cave, from which a wide stream disappears into blackness. From the darkness emerges a flat wooden boat, discernible only by its single spot of illumination. Is it Charon, come to ferry worthy souls across the River Styx? The sunlight at the cave's edge shatters this illusion: The vessel is laden with colorfully clad tourists, returning not from Hades but from whatever geological splendors lurk within.











Coral Caverns
Rt. 31, Mann's Choice, 7 miles west of Bedford. (Turn at intersection opposite Art's Automotive, at Sundae's.) 814-623-6882. www.coralcaverns.com

Year opened
: 1932
Tagline: "An underland wonderland"
Prices: $9; $4 under 12
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily July and August; weekends Sept., Oct., May and June.
Nearby Attractions: Old Bedford Village, Shawnee State Park

The guide simultaneously describes a dark hole as a "bottomless pit" and as being "under construction." A low-hanging formation apt to conk the careless in the head is cited as a "tour-guide killer," though to date no guides have met their demise here.











Indian Caverns
Rt. 45, Spruce Creek, 31 miles northeast of Altoona. 814-632-7578. www.indiancaverns.com

Year opened
: 1929
Tagline: "Pennsylvania's largest and the world's most interesting limestone cavern"
Prices: $9; $4.50 for under 12
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Labor Day; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily Sept., Oct. and May
Nearby Attractions: Lincoln Caverns

You never know whom you might meet below ground. On the gift-shop wall is a group photo taken in the late 1970s that includes first lady Roslyn Carter and her daughter Amy. Manager Aden Wertz explained that, while president, Jimmy Carter would often fish at Spruce Creek, presumably leaving the women-folk to tour the nearby cave.











Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks
Rt. 22, Huntington, 34 miles east of Altoona. 814-643-0268. www.lincolncaverns.com

Year opened
: 1931
Tagline: "Closest cavern to Raystown Lake"
Prices: $9.50; $6.50/5.50 for under 12
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily July 1 through Labor Day; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily Sept.-Nov. and March-May; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends in Dec.
Nearby attractions: Raystown Lake, Indian Caverns

They've posted a helpful 1946 article clipped from the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Our Caves as National Defense." While claustrophobics may demur, middle-aged caves such as those in our region are very stable. When stalactites and stalagmites meet, they form columns; when cracks develop, water dripping through them leaves calcite deposits that almost miraculously seal up the rifts.











Laurel Caverns
Farmington, Laurel Caverns Road south off U.S. 40 -- 3 miles east of Uniontown. 724-438-3003. www.laurelcaverns.com

Year opened
: 1964
Tag line: "Pennsylvania's Largest Cave"
Prices: $9.50; $5.50 for under 12
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily May-Oct.; weekends Mar., April and Nov.
Nearby attractions: Ohiopyle, Fallingwater

The descent into the cave is through a long narrow tunnel -- an impressive natural passageway that is illuminated with over a dozen ornate candelabra-style chandeliers covered in dust and rust. The guide tells us this is known as the "Hall of the Mountain King"; I'm seeing the perfect album-cover art for a '70s prog-rock band.

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