Colorado Celebrates 135 Years of Public Cave Tours

By Richard Rhinehart ~ March 14th, 2010. Filed under: Caving News, Williams Canyon Project.

This April, one of the first public attractions of the Pikes Peak region is celebrating its 135th anniversary. Opened to visitors to the new resort community of Manitou in early April 1875, Mammoth Cave offered an opportunity to see a pristine Colorado cave, previously unknown to even the Native Americans who frequented the area’s bubbling mineral springs.

Williams Canyon north of Manitou Springs, Colorado. (Richard Rhinehart photograph, copyright 2005.)

Williams Canyon north of Manitou Springs, Colorado. (Richard Rhinehart photograph, copyright 2005.)

The April 10, 1875 Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette told breathlessly of the excitement at Manitou, nestled in the foothills of Pikes Peak: “Mr. Case, the proprietor, is having stairs constructed for the various descents, and suitable clothing and other conveniences are soon to be prepared for the use of parties desiring to visit the cave. Last Saturday, about 150 persons, some of them ladies, went through the cavern, and many others only await the promised preparations for a comfortable visit to make the tour of this subterranean wonder.”

Manitou itself was only four years old, having been founded in 1871 as a planned resort. Hotels as yet were few in the new community, but included the two-year-old Cliff House on the north bank of Fountain Creek. Advertising itself as the closest hotel to Mammoth Cave, the Cliff House looked to the new underground attraction as a means to bring visitors to Manitou, which lacked direct railroad access.

Mammoth Cave was discovered by quarrymen, who were excavating the limestone in scenic Williams Canyon above the famous Narrows. Reported the April 10 Weekly Gazette: “The mouth of the cave was discovered, as almost everything is, by accident. Some persons were blasting rock near by and noticed that the amount of chips and stones that flew into an almost hidden opening had no effect toward filling the hole, and so they threw in a quantity of loose stone, which gave no sound of striking the bottom. Tearing away the rubbish, the opening was fully exposed, and measured nearly six feet in diameter. A narrow passage down an inclined plane about twelve feet, widens into a crevasse about two feet wide and fourteen feet long. The descent from this is rapid, and a rope is used to accomplish it safely.”

News of the discovery quickly passed throughout the Colorado territory. Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported on the cave in its April 21 edition. “Doubtless nearly every one who visits Manitou this season will visit the cave, though a great many more flights of stairs and bridges are needed before the trip can be comfortably and easily made.” The News reported that trips cost 50 cents and the proprietor furnishes “suitable clothing, lights, and a guide free, when there is a party of six to go in at one time.”

Mammoth Cave brought in business to the sleepy hotels of Manitou and increased awareness of the community across Colorado. Pueblo’s Colorado Daily Chieftain in its June 9 edition reported on the financial bonanza the cave has brought: “An explorer has discovered another vacuum in the rocks, styled the ‘Mammoth Cave’ – six hundred feet long – admission, fifty cents. It is said the proprietor has been offered $5,000 for it. I shall leave for my departed spirit, the subterranean business. There are other holes in these upheavals, but if they want their pedigrees given, they must pay for it.”

Given the popularity of Mammoth Cave, visitors and local residents explored the nooks and crannies of rugged Williams Canyon for other caves. A large natural archway, known since at least 1869, received the most attention. The celebrated national illustrated periodical, Harpers Weekly, in its October 2, 1875 edition, featured engravings by J.A. Randolph of the Manitou region. The page of illustrations included an image of the spectacular natural feature called “The Cave of the Winds.”

The October 2, 1875 edition of Harpers Weekly featured Manitou, Colorado and attractions such as Cave of the Winds.

The October 2, 1875 edition of Harpers Weekly featured Manitou, Colorado and attractions such as Cave of the Winds.

Until July, 1880, Mammoth Cave stood alone as Colorado’s only commercial cave. Mammoth’s first competitor, the Cave of the Winds, opened to visitors that month, showing a section of the cave discovered by two young boys on a church outing. These boys, John and George Pickett, were participants of a boy’s exploring group organized by the Rev. R.T. Cross of the First Congregational Church of Colorado Springs. Ironically, the group had intended to explore Mammoth Cave, but was turned away by the cave’s proprietor, who steadfastly insisted that each boy pay the full 50 cent admission fee.

Although the Cave of the Winds was open for only a few months during the summer of 1880, its development killed public interest in Mammoth Cave. In the coming decades, as additional chambers and passages were discovered in the Cave of the Winds and in the nearby Manitou Grand Caverns, the public completely forgot about Mammoth Cave. By the end of the 19th century, only adventuresome school children visited the cave that once attracted thousands of paying visitors. In the first decade of the 20th century, even the name of the cave was forgotten when it was renamed Hucacode Cave.

Today, the Cave of the Winds owns their 19th century rival. No public visits are permitted into the securely gated cave, but experienced cavers with the Williams Canyon Project of the National Speleological Society continue to visit and explore. Today’s Huccacove Cave would hardly be recognized by the cave’s original proprietors – its walls are covered with graffiti from decades of abandonment.  Yet, discoveries within Huccacove, such as 1990’s Mammoth Extension, help build upon the promise the cave had in 1875, when Manitou and the cave were fresh and new.

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