Mysterious & Legendary Caves at Lookout Mountain


The Vagabond recently showed a presentation about Noccalula Falls, which mentioned the cave that was once there. This is the story about that cave:

Throughout Lookout Mountain are many mysterious caves in which all sort of legends are connected. For instance, Confederate soldiers entering the cave and staggering out days later at a distant location. Then there are those caves that served as a shelter for the Indians, a hospital and moonshining operations, as well as mining for gunpowder. If this is not enough, recently-found Lookout Mountain caves have proven to stagger the soul as being some of the world’s tallest and longest!

Due to its makeup, Lookout Mountain is located in one of the world’s richest regions for caves. How is this so? The mountain is topped with a sandstone cap composed of varying hardness. This stone absorbs and holds water like a sponge. Water cannot dissolve sandstone but simply passes through. Under this sandstone cap is a limestone base which water will dissolve if it finds a crack to pass through. Eventually this crack dissolves into a larger passageway until it emerges as a cave.

This explains why it is almost impossible to find a real cave on top of the mountain. Wherever a big stream emerges from the mountain, a considerable cave can be found, although the entrance is usually blocked by a breakdown.

There is one legend involving Confederate soldiers going into a cave at Chattanooga and coming out at Noccalula Falls. Is this possible? Some geologists pointed out that such a cave system extending to both ends of Lookout Mountain is indeed possible.

It is well known most of the mountain has a synclinal “fault,” as well as a limestone base containing water table levels. During Lookout’s early forming, the east and west side rose higher, which left a low area in the middle. Other mountains with synclines and limestone are known to carry a network of caverns.

The most famous of the Lookout Mountain caves was the one in which the natural entrance is located at the foot of Lookout Mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River.  It was known for centuries, first used as a campsite by American Indians and later as a hideout for outlaws and a Civil War Hospital. Many visitors left their traces, and there is even a signature of Andrew Jackson, who also visited the cave.

Tales of this cave’s huge chambers and winding passages have long been passed down from one generation to the next. There were many reports of explorers traveling deep into this cave, as far as 12 miles without reaching the end.

In 1905, the cave was intersected by a railroad tunnel through the mountain, and the entrance was sealed. To access the cave, a 400-foot shaft was excavated in 1928 and 1929. During this excavation, a second cave, Ruby Falls, was discovered at the 260-foot level. Both caves were shown commercially for a short time, but extensive deposits of soot from the railroad tunnel have accumulated in the original lower cave, and it was closed to tourists in 1935.

In recent times, the management of Ruby Falls allowed researchers to take the elevator down to the lower cave by prior arrangement. This access resulted in the findings of new passageways. It also resulted in the discovery of prehistoric bones dating back to the last Ice Age (Pleistocene Age). Many old names and dates in this cave are of great interest to historians. Unfortunately, in 2005, State of Tennessee elevator inspectors required the Ruby Falls operators to seal the portion of the elevator shaft below Ruby Falls, and the cave is now totally inaccessible.

Down in Alabama during 1888, Fort Payne was going through a boom time. Manitou Cave, located in the side of Lookout Mountain, was developed by Fort Payne Coal and Iron Co. as an attraction. Bridges and winding stairways were built leading to the huge ballroom, where dancers could watch the reflections of hundreds of candles glitter from the stalactites of the walls and ceiling. Electricity later was installed inside the cave and a public park was created near the entrance. The area became a favorite social meeting place. The cave was closed in the early 1900’s, and then re-opened in 1963 by the Walter B. Raymond, Sr. family, who operated it as a tourist attraction for 12 years. The area is currently closed to the public.

In Georgia, Lookout Mountain branches off in an extension known as Pigeon Mountain. On top of that mountain is a wild-life management area and underneath it is the Ellison Cave system. Early settlers knew this cave as ear-ly as 1837, but exploration past the first thousand feet of known cave began in 1969.

Ellison is the deepest cave in the United States at 1,067 feet total depth and one of the longest with over 12 miles of pathways. Multiple entrances actually allow a “through the mountain” trip which means a caver can enter on the east side of the mountain and exit on the west.

Within Ellison are numerous vertical shafts attractive to the experienced ca-ver. The most well known are Fantastic Pit at 620 feet deep, followed by Incredible Pit at 440 feet.

Fantastic Pit is the deepest known cave pit in the continental United States. It is big enough to hold the Washington Monument (555-feet). Photos cannot give this place justice as to how huge it is! It is a truly fantastic rappel, and it takes eight seconds for a rock to hit the bottom!

At Lookout Mountain, most cave temperatures are a constant 57 to 590 F. Except for wide open entrance areas, the Indians generally stayed out of caves. Archaeological sites, although not unknown, are relatively rare. The Indians stayed out with reason; despite popular belief, caves are very uncomfortable places to live.

The question now arrives – did soldiers from the Civil War enter a cave in Chattanooga and stagger out two weeks later at Noccalula Falls?

Louie Hart, the manager of the well-known Bellevue Hotel before 1912, went beneath Noccalula Falls and crawled back 200 feet in a cave. He reported the opening at the back narrowed to a tree that was as large as he was. He said that this tree evidently was washed down from some great cavern farther back.

During the year 1859, a man whose last name was Faxon drew a survey map of Noccalula Falls for C.R. Smith Company. He beautifully carved his name and date on the wall behind the waterfall. On this panoramic survey map was drawn a cave to the side of the falls that was called Keener Cave.

Up through the 1930’s, there were many cases and incidents of supposed individuals entering a cave at Keener or Fort Payne and exiting at Noccalula Falls. There is a cave at Keener located at the old Keener Springs on the side of Lookout Mountain. This cave is now flooded with water, but many individuals still living say that its passageway runs deep into Lookout Mountain. Recent spelunkers have stated that so far, it was the longest survey cave in Etowah County and it could be longer if they could get beyond an area that was flooded.

Controversy of the old cave at Noccalula Falls has been exchanged among old timers for many years. One such person said his granddaddy, as a child, would remember men going down below the gorge and later come back up acting strange as if intoxicated. Many of the old timers not only said this, but also said that the cave was dynamited over the entrance.

A book written around 1888, Caves of Northern Alabama, spoke of Confederate soldiers entering a cave near Chattanooga during the war and coming out at Noccalula Falls. Before their exit from the cave, the soldiers reported a huge chamber filled with flying swallows. In the book, the entrance was said to be about 50 feet down the creek and 150 feet over to the right. It also stated the cave’s entrance was dynamited in 1870 due to moonshining.

Still not convinced this never happened? Take the stairways to underneath the falls. As you reach the point under the statue of the Indian princess, you will see a cave-like area hollowed out. In the very back of that area are a few limestone stalactites. Above the roof, on the wall, are stress marks and cracks that could only have been made by dynamite.  

For today, it is a good story. For every story, there are some truths. Perhaps someday, more evidence will prove or disprove this wonderful legend at Noccalula Falls.

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