A tour of the Luray Caverns near Luray, Virginia, is an inspiring way to spend an hour on any day, but when the temperature is reaching the "I-can't-take-it-anymore" stage, this tour is as welcome as it is inspiring.
The reason: a constant temperature of 54 degrees.
It was Colonel T.C. Northcott who first capitalized on this characteristic. In 1901, he "...leased Luray Caverns and built a sanitarium, 'Limair', the first air-conditioned home in America by installing a shaft into a cavern chamber which was connected to the house above. The shaft, five feet in diameter, was sunk into a nearby chamber and a 42-inch fan was installed. Powered by a five horsepower electric motor, this fan changed the entire air of the house every four minutes. The cool, naturally purified underground air filled every room. The bacteria-free air, ideal for those with respiratory illnesses, was filtered through limestone which removed dust and pollen. On the hottest day in summer, the interior of the house was always a cool and comfortable 70 degrees" (luraycaverns.com).
"Covering 64 acres, the caverns were formed millions of years ago by underground rivers and seepage of acid-bearing water through layers of limestone and clay. In time the clay was washed away, leaving only the limestone shell. Long after the formation of the caverns and the development of stalactites from dripping limewater, they were filled with glacial mud. The acid-charged mud eroded the dripstone and altered its shape. When the mud was later removed by flowing water, the older eroded forms remained alongside the new growth, resulting in a striking display of many-hued stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and cascades" (britannica.com).
Probably the most intriguing, yet stun-ning, "formation" was the Stalacpipe Organ, the world's largest natural musical instrument. The organ is played from a regular-size organ, but its organ pipes are the stalactites themselves. Thirty-seven stalactites, covering 3-1/2 acres of the surrounding caverns, produce eerie tones of symphonic quality when electronically tapped by rubber-tipped mallets (left).
This one-of-a-kind instrument was conceived by Mr. Leland W. Sprinkle of Springfield, Virginia, a mathematician and electronics scientist at the Pentagon.
After visiting the caverns with his son and experiencing the organ-like sounds of a stalactite being tapped, Mr. Sprinkle submitted a complex plan for a stalactite-tapping instrument. It took 36 years of frustrating research, design and experimentation to bring his dream to its present state of perfection. Three years alone were spent searching the vast chambers of the caverns to select and carefully sand stalactites to precisely match the musical scale. Only two stalactites were found to be in tune naturally.
Completed in 1956, the organ was connected to various stalactites with over five miles of wiring.
(I was so caught up with the sounds produced by the mallets striking the stalactites that I failed to take photos of the organ and the immense hall in which it was located.)
It was interesting to read this account of the people who visited the caverns in the early days:
"Travel during this period to a destination such as Luray was a very special occasion and the attire of the traveler reflected this type event. Men wore coats and ties and usually a hat, while women donned fine long dresses of the period often with a bonnet. Even into the decades of the 1950's and 60's, a more formal 'Sunday best' appearance was the dress of the day" (luraycaverns.com).
Along the route, some formations have been named because of their resemblance to familiar objects. One such example is this formation (below) that has been named "Fried Eggs."
OK, but the more we looked at it, the more we thought that is looked like "Oysters on the Half Shell."
As we concluded our photographic tour of the Luray Caverns, I realized that I need to take another tour--this time standing close enough to the tour leader to learn more about the formations in the caverns.