This article is based on a trip I made from New York to Miami in March of 1983. It is possible to drive between these two cities on a single coastal highway but as an introduction to American caving I decided to take a longer inland route and visit some of the numerous show caves of the Eastern States. My first stop was Luray Caverns which are situated two hours west of Washington D.C. near the Shenandoah National Park. These are the most highly publicised of the large number of show caves in Virginia. They were first discovered in 1878, and have been commercially exploited ever since. My first impression was of an elaborate Goatchurch. Most of the formations are dry and the stalactites have all been broken. The tour guide insists that you use your imagination to make every formation look like a familiar object. You are not allowed to look at a formation as itself. Seeing this cave made me question the point of the trip I was undertaking. What I was looking at seemed such a bastardisation of a real cave; the coloured lights, the dammed reflecting pools and the blasted tunnels.
From Luray I travelled across Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky to Mammoth Cave National Park. This is the big one. Currently 240 miles of passage have been surveyed. Off season three tours are offered; a half hour tour of some pretties, a one hour tour of the historical parts of the cave and a four hour tour of the upper sections. I took the long tour, which starts with a hundred step entrance down a blasted tunnel. (Of the eight entrances on Mammoth Ridge only one is natural!) You then pass through some impressively large phreatic passage coated with gypsum flowers. Somehow it isn't hard to guess that you're in America when you reach the "Snowball dining room and rest rooms". I couldn't face it. I felt like a believer among the heathen. From there they take you through some high rift passage, and then through a series of boulder chambers. Finally, after more rest rooms, you see some pretties before emerging through another blasted entrance. Mammoth differed from the other show caves I visited in that it is the impressive size which is emphasised, rather than the formations. In the summer other tours take you to the lower sections of the cave, and down to the Echo river which runs through the cave. I would expect these tours to be more impressive due to the presence of water - the other tours are dry. One would also see the place where the Flint and Mammoth Ridge Systems connect.
From Mammoth I travelled south to McMinnville,in central Tennessee, in the hope of visiting Cumberland Caverns. Unfortunately these were closed for the season, but I got a chance to speak to some of the people who were spring cleaning the place about caving in the area. I then headed for Ruby Falls Cave, Chattanooga the Tennesse-Georgia state line. This epitomised everything that is bad about showcave. The cave was discovered when the owners were sinking an elevator shaft down to a lower cave. It was a thin rift coated in many formations and ended in a chamber containing a 145ft waterfall. It is now a blasted passage with coloured lights, broken formations, and a waterfall at the end. It makes one weep when you see what they have done to the cave.
I left Chattanooga in disgust and headed for Russell Cave National Monument, just inside the Alabama state line. This is not really a show cave but is an important archaeological site. The cave has a large entrance which curves down to the floor quite quickly. The floor of the cave has been excavated to a depth of ten feet and has yielded considerable information about the life style of primitive Indians.
My last stop was to be Cathedral Caverns, a few miles south of Scottsboro, Alabama, which was reputed to have a large entrance and spectacular formations, but more importantly, like Cumberland Caverns, is recommended by William Halliday in his book "Depths of the Earth". Unforunately, like Cumberland Caverns, Cathedral Caverns were closed for the winter.
I feel that I probably missed the best showcaves by travelling in the off season. Certainly, Luray and Ruby Falls are not worth detours. In Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee there is plenty of opportunity for real caving. The National Park guide quoted that cavers are extending the Mammoth system on average twelve miles a year. Furthermore, the people I talked to at Cumberland Caverns suggested that Tennessee has a lot of potential.
For anyone interested in American caving I recommend "Depths of the Earth: Caves and cavers of the United States" by William Halliday (Harper and Row) as a good introduction to the major caving areas in the united States.