. By T.V. Antony Raj .
The Appalachian Mountain Range
About 600 million years ago during the pre-Cambrian era, the continental drift of the Americas from the continents of Europe and Africa occurred. A broad, shallow depression formed from Alabama to Newfoundland. An ancient sea flooded the present Appalachian Mountains area. At first, waterborne sediments accumulated in layers on the ocean floor followed by limestone sediments composed of fossilized marine animals and shells. Eventually, the weight of the sediments compressed the two layers to form metamorphic rock.
Eons ago North America and Africa collided due to the shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates. This fractured the sea floor and caused the older underlying layer of metamorphic rock to tilt and slide over the younger layer, creating the towering Appalachian mountain range.
The term Appalachian refers to a number of territories linked to the mountain range. Most typically, it denotes the entire mountain range with its surrounding hills along with the dissected plateau region. Even so, the term commonly applies more restrictively to refer regions in the central and southerly Appalachian Mountains. It often includes areas in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
The Shenandoah Valley
The Shenandoah Valley, lies in Virginia and West Virginia in the United States, bounded to the north by the Potomac River, to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the west by the eastern front of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians, and to the south by the James River.
The Valley has a number of geological and historically significant limestone caves. Crystal Caverns, Endless Caverns, Grand Caverns (designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973 Madison’s Cave, visited by George Washington; mapped and published by Thomas Jefferson Dixie Caverns.), Luray Caverns (designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 Shenandoah Caverns.), Massanutten Caverns, and Skyline Caverns being the main ones.
Most caverns in the Shenandoah Valley took millions of years to form as water trickled through tiny cracks in the stone, dissolving the lime, and enlarging the cracks. The cracks became crevices, then channels, and eventually tunnels.
Discovery of the Luray Caverns
The Luray Caverns originally called Luray Cave (Coordinates: 38°39′51″N 78°27′16″W) located in the western part of Luray, the county seat of Page County, Virginia, evolved after the formation of limestone of the Shenandoah Valley due to the ancient inland sea. Violent earthquakes created faults that hastened the formation of the caverns.
The discovery of the Luray caverns dates back to 1878. Known from pioneer times there existed on the far side of the hill east of the village of Luray, a cave. One day, a member of the Ruffner family, the first settlers of the valley, went out hunting and failed to return home. After searching the region for nearly a week, they found the missing man’s gun and powder-horn at the mouth of this cave. Eventually, they rescued the famished hunter from the cave, later known as the “Ruffner Cave.”
Many years later, Benton Stebbins, a wandering school teacher and photographer, drifted into Luray. Having some understanding of geology, he presumed the possibility of caverns of considerable extent existing close to the vintage Ruffner Cave. Stebbins confided his assumption to Andrew Campbell, the village tinsmith. Campbell, a capable woodsman, roamed the country accumulating hoard of information while his wife wondered what the family would have for dinner.
It so began the discovery of Luray Caverns.
Andrew Campbell, his brother William Campbell and Benton Stebbins started their cave-hunting. The caverns a mile east of the town beneath the summit of the highest hill called the Cave Hill, 927 feet (283 meters) above sea level, with its pits and sinkholes also known as karst draining into underground cavities, common throughout the region, had long been an object of interest to its locals. The three men wandered about checking sinkholes for prospective openings.
Eventually, on the morning of August 13, 1878, they turned their attention to a sinkhole about fifteen or twenty feet across and twelve feet deep, overgrown with briars and bushes, in a wheat field on the north slope of Cave Hill. They started poking around and one of them noticed cold air rushing out of a hole about four inches in diameter.
The men worked hard to clear out the rubbish. They dug deeper. After five hours, they made an opening large enough for a man to crawl through it.
Using a rope, Andrew Campbell descended into the dark abyss. He descended until he found a firm foothold in the dark and let go of the rope. He lit a candle and looked about him on the unexpected splendors of the chamber to which he had gained entrance.
After some time the men above began to wonder what happened to Andrew. So, his brother William descended into the abyss in search of him.
The brothers went on exploring until stopped by water so clear they hardly realized it was there. Stalactite and stalagmite ornamentations abounded everywhere in the labyrinthine passages and chambers. They discovered the largest series of caverns in the East – an appalling world of stalactites and stalagmite ornamentations that abounded everywhere in the labyrinthine passages and chambers. The brothers agreed to keep quiet about their discovery. When they came up to the surface, they told Stebbins and some loafers that had gathered around to see what was going on, that there was nothing inside. However, when the brothers were alone with Stebbins, they told him the truth about the underground cavern. Later they returned to explore the caverns more extensively.
Sam Buracker of Luray owned the land under which the caverns lay at the time the trio discovered the caverns. On account of uncollected debts and subsequent bankruptcy, a court ordered auction of all his property on September 14, 1878.
The three never-do-wells had no money – not a man among them could raise twenty-five dollars. So they divulged their discovery to another person who was well to do and persuaded him to back them up.
Andrew Campbell, his brother William Campbell and Benton Stebbins surprised the village folk by bidding the land then worth eight or ten dollars an acre for more than twice the expected amount. They paid $507.75. Their friends taunted them for purchasing the land at more than double the price. Unable to face the ridicule, they prematurely revealed their reason for buying the land.
Page-Courier published a note on the sudden increase in the property value of “Cave Hill.” The heirs of the bankrupt property of Sam Buracker filed a lawsuit against the trio. Two years later the Supreme Court of Virginia nullified the purchase, citing that the buyers kept the location of the cavern a secret that led to the non-realization of the true value of the land until after purchase. The seventeen acres of land handed over to William T. Biedler, son-in-law of the original owner Samuel Buraker fetched forty thousand dollars instead of three hundred dollars when put on sale a second time.
Benton Stebbins drifted around from pillar to post, and died in a neighboring town a public charge.
Clifton Johnson, a rambler, in his book “Highways and Byways from the St. Lawrence to Virginia” published by The Macmillan Company, New York, in September, 1913, states that he met Andrew Campbell. Clifton says that Campbell was evidently confident that he knew the caverns much more thoroughly than those then in charge. I quote here Clifton Johnson talking about Andrew Campell:
“They’ll tell you there’s practically no life in the cavern,” he said, “but I’ve seen tracks of coons, ‘possums and bears in there — thousands of ‘em; and I’ve seen places where animals have stayed, most likely to get away from the cold above ground in winter. Rats and mice live in there. I’ve set traps for ‘em, but they were too slick for me. A very little fly, and a spider, both almost microscopic, are found in the caverns, and I’ve come across bats hangin’ upside down. Where the animals come in, or where the air comes in, no one can tell, but it’s plain that the entrance we found ain’t the only one.”