Ohio Caverns Discovered 125 Years Ago

Ohio Caverns was discovered in August of 1897. This August celebrates 125 years since the discovery.

Ohio Caverns has no natural opening and was unknown until 1897.  In August of that year, a seventeen-year-old farmhand named Robert Noffsinger became curious about a small sinkhole.  A sinkhole is an area where water erosion causes a depression in the ground.  Noffsinger noticed that this area was often filled with water after heavy rains, but the water quickly drained into the ground.  Curious to find out where the water was going, he began to dig.  Several feet down, he encountered the limestone bedrock and noticed a small crevice.  He worked his way into the crevice and became the first human being to set foot in Ohio Caverns.

Upon being notified of this discovery, the landowner decided to make some extra money by charging admission into the underground passages.  Local farmers helped widen the crevice, and a building was constructed over the opening of what became known as Mt. Tabor Cave.  These original “tours” were self-guided.  For a small fee, visitors could rent lanterns from the landowner and were given only one restriction – they had to be out by nightfall.  At the end of the day, the landowner counted his lanterns.  If any were missing, he knew someone was still in the cavern, possibly lost or with a broken lantern.  Someone would then go into the cavern to help the missing visitors find their way out.

Like all limestone caverns, Ohio Caverns was created by water.  When the water receded to lower levels, it deposited sediment in the passageways.  In some areas, the mud was only a few inches deep.  In other areas, it was several feet deep.  Visitors to Mt. Tabor Cave spent much of their time crawling rather than walking.  With no guides, no restrictions, and limited knowledge about caves and caverns, this early exploration resulted in a significant amount of damage.  Wanting souvenirs, the visitors broke off the small formations they encountered, thus destroying years of growth.  They also wanted to prove how far they were able to progress through the passageways, so they often left what guides now call “historic graffiti” written or carved into the limestone.  Many of the autographs provide the date, and some even include the visitor’s hometown.  These markings provide evidence of the furthest points reached by the early visitors.  Eventually, they all had to turn around; the sediment was so close to the ceiling, that the passageway was impassable.

In 1922, the landowner sold his property to Al and Ira Smith, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio.  With the help of local farmers, the brothers began to remove the sediment from the passageways.  Due to the narrow confines of the caverns, major excavating equipment was not practical.  For more than three years, workers cleaned out the passages using nothing more than shovels and buckets.  The excavation process created two new openings and led to the discovery of more than two miles of previously unknown passageways.  The sediment that blocked these areas protected large displays of beautiful white formations.  In 1925, the Smith brothers blocked the original opening, closed the area known as Mt. Tabor Cave, and began offering guided tours through the newly discovered passages under the name Ohio Caverns.

Since its opening in 1925, ownership of Ohio Caverns has passed from generation to generation of the Smith family.  Many improvements have been made to the cavern tours in this time.  One example is the lighting system within the caverns.  The original bulb-and-wire electrical system was powered by two Fordson tractors.  In the early 1930s, the system was upgraded when Ohio Caverns was able to connect to a rural electricity grid.  A second upgrade came during the winter of 1988-1989 and remains in use today.  The current lights are shaded, and the wires are hidden, the main line buried beneath the concrete path, which was poured in the 1970s.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the cavern, the area originally known as Mt. Tabor Cave was reopened to the public.  Historic tours were offered during the summer months beginning in the summer of 1996.  Unused since 1925, no improvements had been made to this area.  To give visitors a more authentic and historic feel, only limited changes were made.  Rather than pouring concrete, the muddy sediment was covered by gravel.  Once again, the narrow confines of the passage limited the equipment available for the job.  Workers carried more than several tons of gravel, one bucket at a time, and used rakes to spread it in the pathway.  Also, a replica of the original bulb-and-wire lighting systems was used in place of the modern shaded system of the newer passages.  These tours were offered for only three summers, and the historic area was once again closed to the general public in the fall of 1998.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the discovery a Lantern Tour is being offered through the Historic section of the caverns. This tour is offered through August and is by reservation only. There will be one tour a day at 9:10 am and will be for only 20 people. You can call 937-465-4017 between 9 am and 5 pm to reserve your spot on this limited available tour.

For an in-depth multimedia story about Ohio Caverns’ history, unique discoveries, and current offerings.

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