Fountain Cave; A Window to Different Worlds

You can almost forgive the early visitors for their ignorance. What they took, what they left behind, seems quaint and antiquated. The damage they did, however, was permanent and marred irreplaceable treasures. Now their harmful handiwork serves as an example of the lasting damage done by the careless hand of man.

I had occasion recently to tag along with a school group on a tour of Fountain Cave led by intrepid educators from the Virginia Living Museum. The cavern is one of a series of three on Cave Hill in the Shenandoah Valley town of Grottoes, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson visited Madison’s Cave, the first one discovered there, and wrote of it in Notes on the State of Virginia. The largest of the three sisters–originally called Weyer’s Cave–is today operated as Grand Caverns and has been a public show cave, now the oldest in the country, ever since a trapper discovered it in the 19th century.

Not Fountain Cave, though. It’s been shuttered for a century or so. A locked iron gate bars the entrance. The path leading there is steep and narrow. Nobody’s quite sure why owners closed Fountain Cave in the early twentieth century, although the accessibility and relative grandeur of Weyer’s Cave, or Grand Caverns, just adjacent, may have had something to do with it. Today few groups have access to Fountain Cave–a handful of museums, universities and professional spelunkers, and that’s it. Nowhere near the thousands of visitors that filter through Fountain Cave’s better-known next-door-neighbor.

Access to Fountain Cave wasn’t always limited, though. In fact, the cavern was a show cave for nearly a century. Regrettably, that century happened to be the nineteenth, when notions of treading lightly and the fragility of natural systems weren’t well appreciated.

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An old hand rail and broken formations

Descending into Fountain Cave down stone steps today is like stepping into a different world in a couple different ways. The atmosphere is cool and humid. It stays 54 degrees all day, every day. The ambient noise of the outside world, sounds you don’t even notice–wind rustling leaves, distant children shouting, the grindings of modern machinery–simply, beautifully, disappears. The cave envelops sunlight coming through the shrinking portal until the only illumination is the synthetic and jerky beam of a headlamp.

Although smaller than Grand Caverns, Fountain Cave nevertheless holds magnificent formations, including a series of five pools, or fountains, which nineteenth century observers noticed. The beauty of Fountain Cave is stunning, and there are quirky names for all that water does there as it drips and flows and carries away the tiniest specks of minerals and rocks in the process: stalactites and stalagmites, shields and drapery, coral and grapes. These are natural creations unaffected by the all the elements that carve into the continent on the surface. That anything can eke out a living in this cool, dark environment is a wonder, too, but there are creatures–fish, bats, a host of microorganisms–who have found a niche here. Fountain Cave, any cave really, is an epic work of art, an ongoing masterpiece.

Which is why it’s discouraging that people who visited this cave long ago left such heavy footprints.  Stepping into Fountain Cave is like traveling in a time machine to the nineteenth century, when there was always more of everything, when taking a millions-of-years-old relic was OK because there were plenty of them all around.

Where fissures have formed in Fountain Cave’s ceiling, allowing water to seep in, so-called soda straws, hollow tubes that’ll eventually become stalactites, hang by the hundreds. Or hung by the hundreds, more accurately. Especially where they’re at arm’s length. People snapped them off to take as souvenirs.

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Broken stalactites and soda straws

Even the thicker stalactites and stalagmites, which require more effort to remove, are absent where they should be. Pieces of the drapery have been chipped off. One formation that flows from the ceiling has a gunshot hole. Burn marks still mar the cave walls where torches meant to illuminate the black interior were wedged into the craggy walls and burned to the nub.

19th century visitors were quick to leave their signatures, too, a testament to their presence, as if the formations they took from Fountain Cave’s ceiling and walls weren’t evidence enough. Oddly enough, that graffiti visitors left now itself warrants protection and awe as a window to a much different time.

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Broken drapery and a gunshot hole

Not that those early visitors didn’t appreciate Fountain Cave. Quite the opposite. They marveled at the natural beauty. It’s just that they destroyed pieces of it to show their high regard. “At every step you are struck with the beauty of the formation(s)…so perfect as to seem the work of art,” a 19th century visitor who called himself “Rambler” said of Fountain Cave.  Owner Elias Pirkey was fond of having grand illuminations of the cave’s deep recesses. In one 1868 ceremony he lit 1,500 candles. In 1873, he outdid that with a 5,000-candle celebration attended by more than five hundred people.

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Burn marks at the top of the formation, a result of 19th century torches

In an environment as delicate as a cave, changes like those imposed by people who burned and broke and shot were catastrophic and long-lasting. On the tour I took, the class’s teacher, John Gulick, pointed to a stick off the beaten path that’d somehow managed to make it into the cave. “I’ve seen that stick in the same spot for ten years,” he told the students. And he’s right. That piece of otherwise unremarkable debris has been providing sustenance to the cave’s delicate ecosystem for at least that long. A student found the decomposed remains of a bat, too. The same story there–no telling how long that tiny carcass has been nourishing the fragile ecosystem in here.

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Remains of a bat and old wood (a torch?)

It’s hard to tell how much damage early travelers did here.  But is was surely significant, and judging by the fact that their impressions are still plain as day–in the broken formations, in the scorched walls, in the gunshot hole–suffice it to say that recovery in an ecosystem that moves as slowly as a cave takes a forever on the scale of human lives.

Grand Caverns has plans to reopen Fountain Cave on a limited basis, expanding the opportunity to witness natural beauty that’s been off limits for generations. Thankfully, all the shenanigans of the past are history and this subterranean wonder will be appreciated gently, allowing Fountain Cave the ample room it needs to remain on the long road to recovery.

Here is a link to Grand Caverns on Google Maps.

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19th century signatures

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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