Anna Oakes photo
The stream at the bottom of Bristol Cavern is about 180 feet from the cave ceiling. Stairs were installed in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s (left), and the pathways were paved in the ‘80s.
Long ago, caves and caverns were assumed to be static, unshifting sites of permanence, placed on this earth as a matter of happenstance or higher power, unchanged by time or environment. We now know the opposite to be true: caverns—caves formed from limestone or other soluble rock—have been slowly, painstakingly carved by natural processes, their formations growing drip by drip, inch by inch over the course of millions and millions of years.
Sculpted out of material that formed even before the Appalachian Mountains were thrust above the sea from deep within the earth’s crust, caverns found in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina are stunning renderings of the earth’s age and dynamic physical history. The sculptor? Water, that amazing agent of change, power and creation, has the ability to fashion breathtaking ballrooms and whimsical forests out of limestone, and even today, these caverns are continually developing.
Once thought to harbor dragons and mythical creatures, underground caverns, with their year-round comfortable temperatures, have served as safe havens for Native Americans, military deserters and moonshine manufacturers and as spectacular scenes for weddings and community gatherings. Today, many caverns can be safely experienced through informative, family-friendly commercial tours.
The Hollowing Out of Mountains
About 500-million years ago, a large part of the southeastern United States was submerged under the ocean, according to Henry S. Brown’s Linville Caverns Through the Ages. The Southern Appalachian region, now beloved for its majestic mountains, was beach real estate at the time, and several hundred feet of sand was deposited along the shoreline. When the shoreline later retreated, the sea deepened in this area and became the home of many small animals and plants. Over hundreds of millions of years, the calcium-rich shells of these marine organisms accumulated on the bottom of the sea, covering the earlier sand deposits and eventually compressing and hardening into limestone.
The ancient ocean—which later became the Gulf of Mexico, noted a May 2010 article in Discover magazine—continued to cover at least parts of the Southern Appalachian region for more than 250 million years ago. Then, some 200 million years ago, forces that had been building up deep within the earth’s crust gradually pushed rocks high above the level of the sea, forming the Appalachian Mountain chain, and fresh rain water began to replace salt water, flowing as streams on the surface and soaking into soil and rocks to become groundwater.
Limestone caves, or caverns, begin to form when tiny fractures, cracks or crevices open in the rock and groundwater flows through. Fresh water reacts with carbon dioxide in the air to form carbonic acid, a weak acid that gradually dissolves limestone rock. The limestone remains dissolved as the acidic water seeps through the ground, but once the water penetrates the cave wall and comes into contact with air, it releases its carbon dioxide. Without acidity, the solution can no longer dissolve minerals, so it leaves behind a trail of limestone deposits on every surface over which it flows.
When a drop of water enters a cave and the limestone (calcium carbonate) is precipitated out of the solution, a ring of calcite forms on the ceiling of the cavern. This process repeats over and over, and gradually the buildup of limestone forms a stalactite—or icicle-shaped structure that hangs from the cavern ceiling. A stalagmite is a cone of limestone rising from the floor of a cavern and is often located directly below a stalactite. The dripping of water and deposit of minerals from a stalactite to a stalagmite below can continue until the two structures join together, forming a column. Other cavern formations include curtains or draperies. Collectively, limestone cavern formations are also known as dripstone or cave onyx.
The formation of a limestone cave is an extremely slow process, with massive caverns being carved by mere drips or trickles of water. Two to five human lifetimes will pass by in the time it takes for one cubic inch of dripstone to form—an estimated 100 to 300 years depending on various factors.
“Here is one of the few chances of a lifetime to observe openly one of the usually hidden, but almost irresistible, forces of nature: the work of underground water,” wrote Brown, speaking about North Carolina’s Linville Caverns. “This water, often in mere traces, is the silent sculptor producing patterns of great beauty in stone.”
Cavern formations are brittle and will break like glass. The many colors seen in cavern formations are created by the presence of impurities. The acid from the touch of a hand will destroy the gloss on a formation and make it dull and unattractive, warns the website of Tennessee’s Tuckaleechee Caverns.
Karst topography is a type of landscape that is shaped by the dissolution of limestone, dolomite limestone or other soluble rock. About 15 percent of the earth’s terrain is karst, according to “Subterranean Secrets,” a 1992 article in Time magazine. A 2002 map by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the distribution of karst topography throughout the United States. Although karst is present in some parts of North Carolina’s coastal plain and small areas of Western North Carolina, it covers much of Tennessee. Tennessee is home to 9,600 caves—the highest number of known caves in the United States. It’s important to note that a cavern is a specific type of cave—one naturally formed in soluble rock (such as limestone) with the ability to grow cave formations. While Tennessee has many limestone caverns, the only commercial limestone show cave in the Tar Heel State is Linville Caverns.
A farmer’s Fruit cellar
“When it’s dark, you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” explained guide Kevin Hicks during a recent tour of Bristol Caverns, located in the northeastern corner of Tennessee. Luckily, the caverns and walkways are well lit, allowing 50,000 visitors per year to take in the sprawling, 1.5-mile underground wonderland that exists at a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains.
There’s no way of knowing when the caverns were first discovered, Hicks noted, as they were known to be used by Native Americans. At one time, 18 skulls were discovered in the caverns, which the Smithsonian verified as being Cherokee Indian. In 1863, a farmer discovered the caverns as he was digging a root cellar and the ground collapsed—some say he later capitalized on the discovery by charging others for use of space in his new “root cellar.”
The presence of man is not invisible in these caverns. Some of the stalactites have been broken, presumably by early settlers who thought the formations contained minerals such as gold or silver.
Tours of the caverns began around the turn of the century. Stairs were put in during the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, and paths were gravel until the 1980s, when they were paved. Gary Barnett, co-owner of Bristol Caverns, noted that the caverns officially opened to the public as a show cave in 1944 and have been sold five times, most recently to Barnett and his brothers in 1981.
Inside Bristol Caverns is a clear stream that is about 180 feet below the cave’s ceiling, meandering through the cavern and eventually feeding the waters of South Holston Lake. A spring located in the caverns was used for drinking water until the 1950s, and visitors were at one time permitted to drink the water during tours, but not anymore, Hicks said.
Among Bristol Caverns’ features is Gigantus, one of the largest column formations in the country at 58 feet tall, 74 feet in circumference and 10 feet thick. One of the rooms in the caverns is known as Mayor Preston’s Conference Room, where the local mayor held meetings during the late ‘40s, preferring the location for its constant temperature range of 55 to 60 degrees and for its acoustics—so he could easily overhear people whispering about him. The cavern, believe it or not, has also been a site of romance, converted into a subterranean chapel for a number of weddings; the most recent ceremony took place in October 2009.
Clinging to one of the cave walls was an Eastern Pipistrelle Bat. Bristol Caverns is a winter home to these bats, which typically hibernate from November to March or April, Hicks said. One of the smallest bat species in eastern North America, the Eastern Pipistrelle can eat 3,000 mosquitoes in one night, which is equal to its own body weight.
Compared with other show caves across the country, Bristol Caverns is average in size, and the tours last about an hour. Only about a third of the cavern is featured on the tour because the rest of the cavern hasn’t been developed. The Barnetts plan to keep it that way to preserve some of the cavern as wild and pristine.
The cave beneath sunnalee
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of McDowell County, Linville Caverns is North Carolina’s only known limestone cave of significant size. Linville Caverns is located within Humpback Mountain, which author Shepherd M. Dugger felt deserved a more elegant name, referring to the mountain as “Sunnalee,” the Cherokee word for “morning,” in his writings.
Dr. Cato Holler Jr. and Susan G. Holler, authors of the 1989 book Hollow Hills of Sunnalee: The Linville Caverns Story, wrote that the cavern’s namesake, William Linville, and his son John were killed by Cherokees in 1766 as the two were exploring below what is referred to as the “Great Falls” of the Eeseeoh, “River of Cliffs.” Following their deaths, Linville Falls, Linville River and the Linville Gorge were named for the two adventurers.
According to the Hollers, many people believe the troops of Colonels Sevier and Shelby stopped at the caverns while on their way to the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain, considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War. One article stated that Sevier’s troops stopped to visit the cave on their way to the battle, while another said the survivors of the battle later hid out in the cave.
A property deed indicates that at one time, the owner of the land surrounding the caverns was Waightstill Avery, who served in the Revolutionary War and as North Carolina’s attorney general. In 1788, one of Avery’s practical jokes drew the ire of Andrew Jackson, and he challenged Avery to a duel. Both survived the fray without serious injury; Jackson later became president of the United States, and North Carolina’s honored Avery by naming the state’s 100th county after him.
Around 1830, the families of William and Gabriel English and their slaves lived on approximately 1,000 acres near the caverns, and it is said that the slaves would congregate in the caverns and sing spirituals.
Except to locals, the caverns remained relatively unknown until 1858, when travel writer Henry E. Colton visited the caverns and published an account of his tour in the N.C. Presbyterian.
“We emerged into an immense passage, whose roof was far beyond the reach of the glare of our torches, except where the fantastic festoons of stalactites hang down within our touch. It looked like the arch of some grand old cathedral, yet it was too sublime, too perfect in all its beautiful proportions, to be anything of human, but a model which man might attempt to imitate,” Colton wrote.During the Civil War, Confederate deserters from the area hid out in the caverns and practiced their trade of mending shoes—neighboring families would bring the men food and provisions in exchange for shoe repairs.
Several more expeditions into the cave took place before a corporation formed to develop the caverns for tourism in 1937, and a grand opening was held on July 1, 1939. Two years of preparation was wiped out, however, when the August 1940 flood devastated the area. The Linville Caverns were filled with tons of mud and debris. After repairs, the attraction reopened in June 1941.
Tuckaleechee and the Mysterious Dry valley
Described with the tagline “The Greatest Sight Under the Smokies,” Tuckaleechee Caverns is located in Townsend, Tenn., west of Gatlinburg. As in Bristol Caverns further north, Cherokee Indians were believed to have hid in the caverns before white men discovered them around 1850. That’s when sawmill workers watched water from a heavy rain pour into a sinkhole in the area. One of the men found an opening in the rock and made his way to what is now the entrance of the caverns.
Before this discovery there were reports of a cool spot in the valley near the sinkhole—from drafts of the constant 58-degree air in the caverns. Local women were reported to have taken their sewing and other chores to the sinkhole to enjoy the cool breezes during the hot summer months, and children would take naps there. Today, these same breezes are piped into the gift shop and visitor center to help air-condition the facilities.
An underground stream flows through the length of the caverns, drawing much of the surface water away from a small cove, Dry Valley, located directly above part of the caverns. Dry Valley was named as such long before it was known why water disappeared quickly following heavy rains.
The caverns opened to the public in 1931, only to close a year later because of the Great Depression.
Two childhood friends, W.E. “Bill” Vananda and Harry Myers, frequently explored the caverns as kids and as college students. In 1949, they discussed the feasibility of reopening the cave to the public. When an Associated Press columnist interviewed them around 1960, Myers said, “We played Tom Sawyer in the main passage as kids. We explored it for three-quarters of a mile, sometimes wriggling on our bellies, and lighting our way with homemade lamps—pop bottles filled with kerosene.”
No one would lend the men money to develop the caverns, so they went to Alaska and worked construction jobs to raise the needed funds. After carrying in hundreds of tons of sand, cement and gravel in on their backs to build steps and pathways over a period of four years, Vananda and Myers opened the caverns in 1953.
The mile-long guided tour of Tuckaleechee Caverns includes the Big Room, which is more than 400 feet long, 300 feet across and 150 feet deep and contains stalagmites up to 24 feet tall. The tour also features the 200-foot-high Silver Falls, which is a double waterfall.
Explore the caverns
Plan your own visit—in winter, spring, summer or fall—to one of our region’s spectacular caverns.
Appalachian Caverns and Campground
420 Cave Hill Road, Blountville, Tenn. • 423.323.2337 • appacaverns.com
Regular tours on developed pathways and “Wild Tours” into undeveloped parts of the cavern available. Gem mine also on site. Call about group rates and birthday parties.
1157 Bristol Caverns Highway, Bristol, Tenn. • 423.878.2011 • bristolcaverns.com
Open daily year round except Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. Call for pricing. Guided tours leave from the gift shop every 20 minutes. Tours last approximately one hour.
455 Blowing Cave Road, Sevierville, Tenn. • 865.453.5972 • forbiddencavern.com
Open daily except Sundays, April through November. Closed Thanksgiving Day and December through March. Call for group rates.
19929 U.S. 221 North, Marion, N.C. • 800.419.0540 • linvillecaverns.com
Open daily March through November; Saturdays and Sundays only December through February. Tours last 30 minutes. Discounted rates available to groups of 25 or more and school groups. Gift shop on site.
The Lost Sea Adventure
140 Lost Sea Road, Sweetwater, Tenn. • 423.337.6616 • thelostsea.com
Open every day except Christmas. Stroll through an 18th century village, explore caverns, then float across America’s largest underground lake. Wild Cave Tours into undeveloped cave rooms available as overnight trips for organized groups. Discounted rates available to groups of 15 or more. Café, picnic facilities and nature trail on site.
825 Cavern Road, Townsend, Tenn. • 865.448.2274 • tuckaleecheecaverns.com
Open daily March to November; closed in winter months. Tours depart every 30 minutes and last approximately one hour.