Mark Twain Cave
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|Mark Twain Cave|
The 1890 entrance to Mark Twain Cave
|Location||Hannibal, Missouri, USA|
|Show cave opened||1886|
Mark Twain Cave — originally McDowell's Cave — is a show cave located near Hannibal, Missouri, USA. It is the oldest operating show cave in the state, giving tours continuously since 1886. Along with nearby Cameron Cave, it became a registered National Natural Landmark in 1972, with a citation reading "Exceptionally good examples of the maze type of cavern development". Mark Twain Cave — as "McDougal's Cave" — plays an important role in the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Mark Twain and was later renamed in honor of the author, a Hannibal native.
Geologically Mark Twain Cave and its nearby neighbor Cameron Cave differ from most of the 6,500+ caves found in Missouri. Both are believed to be remnants of a much larger cave system cut apart by a glacier and millions of years of erosion, leading to speculation by geologists and common citizens alike that there may be as yet further undiscovered caves in the Hannibal region. This speculation was heightened in 2006 when the entrance to a previously unknown cave was found during construction of a new elementary school. Other differences in Mark Twain Cave are the near total lack of speleotherms, mineral deposits like stalagmites and stalactites in large open areas. Mark Twain Cave and Cameron Cave instead have a multitude of narrow, winding passages. The caves are made mostly of a soft limestone called Louisiana Lithographic Limestone and found only in a 35-mile area around Hannibal and Louisiana, Missouri. The limestone has been estimated by geologists as around 350 million years old, while the cave passages were formed some 100 million years ago. Mark Twain Cave covers some six and a half miles consisting of four entrances and 260 passages, maintaining a year around temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
Discovery and first uses
While it's possible that Native Americans may have been aware of the cave, the earliest documentation of Mark Twain Cave claims its discovery in the winter of 1819-1820 by a local hunter, Jack Simms. Mr. Simms' dog chased an animal into a small hillside opening south of current-day Hannibal. Upon investigation with the help of his brother and torches, the small opening was found to lead to a large underground labyrinth. The cave proved a popular diversion for Hannibal residents in the mid-19th century, especially children, including a young Sam Clemens. These childhood explorations would later reappear in five of Mark Twain's books. The proximity to the Mississippi river and its cooling breezes made the small valley between the river bluffs containing the caves a popular site for family picnics and church outings in the summertime.
The mad scientist and the outlaw
One odd, even macabre, event in the cave's early history happened in late 1840s when Hannibal physician Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell purchased the cave and used it for several years as a laboratory for experiments on human corpses. His most notable experiment involved an attempt to petrify the remains of his deceased daughter. Twain's book Life on the Mississippi offered a rather gruesome description of the activities:
"In my time the person who owned it [the cave] turned it into a mausoleum for his daughter, age fourteen. The body of this poor child was put in a copper cylinder filled with alcohol, and this suspended in one of the dismal avenues of the cave."
After two years the experiment proved a failure and the girl's body was forcibly removed by angry Hannibal citizens who learned about it from children who discovered it while exploring the cave, and sometimes used the body to enhance the spooky atmosphere during the telling of ghost stories. Many townsfolk also believed that Dr. McDowell used bodies stolen from area graves for other experiments, a not uncommon practice prior to the 20th century. Twain would weave that suspicion into the plot of Tom Sawyer in a graverobbing scene involving Injun Joe.
Another bit of folklore associated with McDowell's period of ownership was its use as a secret Confederate weapons storage cache during the American Civil War. McDowell was an ardent southern supporter and was proven to have stockpiled guns and ammunition for the rebels in his St. Louis medical college. One of the former Confederates who likely had knowledge of the cave from his war service is legendary outlaw Jesse James. James had ridden with Quantrill's Raiders and Bloody Bill Anderson throughout the Little Dixie area southwest of Hannibal. In September, 1879, following the robbery of a train in nearby Saverton, Missouri, the cave proved a ready and secure hideout for few days rest. James even signed and dated one of the caves walls using a pencil, which used to be open to tours but has since been excluded from the tour, due to the pencil fading.
"The cave was but a labyrinth of crooked aisles that ran into each other and out again and led nowhere. It was said that one might wander days and nights together through its intricate tangle of rifts and chasms and never find the end of the cave" -- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Advent of tourism
Mark Twain Cave was of course not yet called that in its early years, and little known outside of the immediate Hannibal region until 1876 when Twain's landmark novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published. Soon tourists worldwide were making the journey to see the real-life cave that provided the basis for the novel's fictional "MacDougal's Cave", where Tom and Becky Thatcher's lives were endangered by Injun Joe. The first regular tours by paying customers began in 1886 when local farmer John East would charge tourists a dime to see some of the places inside the cave made famous by the novel. At that time the original opening was still being used, but proved impractical for large crowds so in 1890 a newer entry to the cave was created nearby. For over fifty years tourists saw the cave much as Twain had in his youth, by candlelight or lantern. That changed in 1939 when electric lights were finally added to the tour areas of the cave by the Cameron family. In 1923 the cave had been purchased by Judge E.T. Cameron, who had been a guide at the cave as a young man. Through a succession of owners in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Cameron served as manager of the cave property. He was first one to establish standardized tour routes within the cave, construct a small building near the entrance for ticket sales, and advertise the cave in newspapers as "Mark Twain Cave".
A lost sister found
One cold winter day in 1925, Judge Cameron's son Arch was caring for the family's cattle herd when he noticed steam rising from a sinkhole in the ground across the valley from Mark Twain Cave. After some digging a large natural underground room opened up. Further exploration found a cave even larger than Mark Twain Cave, with more twisted pathways. This "sister" cave was named for the Cameron family, and is Missouri's newest show cave. Tours of Cameron Cave are offered, but are of a more primitive nature. The cave has no electric lights, and the only modifications made have been those mandated by law for safety.
Mark Twain Cave today
The entire cave complex is privately owned by the Coleberd family, descendants of Judge Cameron. It includes Mark Twain and Cameron caves, a campground, gift shop/visitors center, candle shop and winery. Other available activities include The Life and Times of Mark Twain, a one-man stage performance that covers various highlights, and the humor of, the famed authors life from a first-person perspective. One of the newest additions to the cave complex is Sticks & Stones, an interactive gem shop where children and adults can sluice for semi-precious stones, much like Twain did in his brief gold panning career. The caves continue to provide entertainment and education for thousands of visitors each year. One of the most notable visitors was U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who toured Mark Twain Cave with his family in 1979. The guided tour of Mark Twain Cave takes approximately 55 minutes, while the larger Cameron Cave tour averages one hour twenty minutes in length. Mark Twain Cave is open year-around except Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Cameron Cave is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day only.
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