The Vagabond – Mysterious & legendary caves at Lookout Mountain


By Danny Crownover

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the August 15, 2014 edition of The Messenger.

During a recent presentation about Noccalula Falls, The Vagabond mentioned a cave that once was located there. The following is the story about that cave:

Located throughout Lookout Mountain are many caves in which many legends are connected. For instance, there is a tale about Civil War soldiers entering the cave and staggering out days later at a distant location. Then there are caves that served as a shelter for the Indians, a hospital, and moonshining operations, as well as mining for gunpowder.

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 usually is blocked by a breakdown.

There is one legend involving Confederate soldiers entering a cave at Chattanooga, Tenn., and eventually emerging 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 the mountain’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 is the natural entrance at the foot of Lookout Mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. Known about for centuries, the cave first was 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 a signature of Andrew Jackson, who visited the cave.

Tales of the 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 rea-ching 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 – the Pleistocene Age. Many old names and dates located in this cave are of great interest to historians.

Unfortunately, in 2005 the 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.

In 1888, Fort Payne was going through a boom time. Manitou Cave, located in the side of Lookout Mountain, was developed by the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company as an attraction. Bridges and winding stairways were built leading to a 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 and re-opened in 1963 by the Walter B. Raymond, Sr., family, who operated it as a tourist attraction for 12 years. The area currently is closed to the public.

In Georgia, Lookout Mountain branches off in an extension known as Pigeon Mountain. Located on top of that mountain is a wildlife management area, while underneath is the Ellison Cave system. Early settlers knew about this cave as early 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,” meaning that a caver can enter on the east side of the mountain and exit on the west side.

Within Ellison Cave are numerous vertical shafts attractive to the experienced caver.

The most well-known are Fantastic Pit at 620 feet deep and the 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  at 555 feet) and tt takes a rock eight seconds to hit bottom.

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, because despite popular belief, caves are very uncomfortable places to live; tem-peratures are a constant 57 to 59 degree Fahrenheit in most Lookout Mountain caves.

Louie Hart, the manager of the local 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.

In 1859, a Mr. Faxon drew a survey map of Noccalula Falls for the C.R. Smith Company and carved his name and the date on the wall behind the waterfall. On his panoramic survey map was drawn a cave to the side of the falls that was called Keener Cave.

Up through the 1930s, 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 Kee-ner 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 is the longest survey cave in Eto-wah County and could be longer if they could get beyond an area that is flooded.

Controversy about the old cave at Noccalula Falls has been discussed among old timers for many years. One such person said that his granddaddy, as a child, remembered 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.

Those still not convinced that this never could happen should descend the stairway to underneath the Noccolula 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 lime-stone stalactites. Above the roof and on the wall are stress marks and cracks that could only have been made by dynamite.

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