Monday, June 18, 2012

The Caverns of Luray - I

It was the morning of August 13, 1878.

Andrew Campbell, the town tinsmith, his 13-year-old nephew, Quint, and three other men were exploring the area, looking for a cave.

"Cold air rushing out of a limestone sinkhole atop a big hill west of Luray, Virginia, blew out a candle held by Andrew.

"With the help of local photographer Benton Stebbins, the men dug away loose rocks for four hours before, candle in hand, Campbell and Quint slid down a rope into the cave. They could scarcely believe what they saw. The party had discovered the largest series of caverns in the East, an eerie world of stalactites and stalagmites seen by the light of a candle" (

As we read the history of the discovery of Luray Caverns, we wondered how this discovery could have been kept secret. But it was--until a fortuitous event intervened.

"At the time of the discovery, Sam Buracker of Luray owned the land on which the cavern entrance was found. Because of uncollected debts, a court-ordered auction of all his land was held on September 14, 1878. Andrew Campbell, William Campbell, and Benton Stebbins purchased the cave tract, keeping their discovery secret until after the sale."

Among the scientists and journaists who visited the site in the next few years was a delegation of nine scientists sent by the Smithsonian Institution "to examine the caverns.... Their report of July 13 and 14, 1880 comments '... it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation than that of Luray'.”

As we began our hour-long tour of the Luray Caverns, we were surprised at how much space there was for our group of about 30 people. The roughly-shaped figure-eight path was paved and wide enough for a comfortable walk.

As usual, we took up a position at the back of the group in order to photograph the formations in the cavern, so we missed much of the narration.

"Most caves result from a simple formula. It consists of a layer of limestone, a mildly acidic mixture of water and carbon dioxide and time--precisely, millions of years.

"The formation of Luray Caverns began after the limestone of the Shenandoah Valley was formed as a result of the inland sea (that stretched from Alabama to Newfoundland for about 400 million

years). The enclosing rocks consist of granular crystalline dolomite belonging to the lower part of the Beekmantown dolomite of Early Ordovician age.

"The entire cavern is confined to a zone only about 100 feet thick and occurred in coarse-grained crystalline dolomite.

"The caverns contain no deposits that indicate the former presence of large flowing streams, and most of the cave deposits have been transported and deposited by very small discharges of water. Rain water picks up diluted carbonic acid when it seeps through decaying vegetation in the soil above the rock.

"The hollowing-out of a limestone cave begins as this acidified water percolated through the fissured limestone dissolving and eroding layers along the way. Water eventually fills all openings enlarging the existing crevices. Run-off soon descends into lower levels of the earth leaving huge limestone chambers.

"As the large volumes of water subside and only slow seepage continues, nature's decorating process begins. Upon entering the unique cave atmosphere, the solution of calcium carbonate gives up some of its carbon dioxide and allows a precipitation of
lime to form. This precipitation begins as a thin deposit ring of crystallized calcite. As this process is continued, stalactites form from the ceiling. As the drops fall to the floor, deposits build forming stalagmites. When a stalactite growing down from the ceiling meets a stalagmite growing from the floor, a column or pillar is formed.

"Luray Caverns is an active cave where new deposits accumulate at the rate of one cubic inch in 120 years.

Then we came upon Dream Lake (shown in the next four photos).

"This is the largest body of water in the caverns. However, its deepest point is not more than 18 to 20 inches. This sparkling lake reflects a myriad of fantastic forms and creates a mirror image of the abundant stalactites hanging from the ceiling."

The lake was perfectly calm, so we had to check a couple of times to confirm that in was, in fact, a reflection.

I don't know if the tour leader was picking up the pace of the tour, but we found ourselves falling behind the group.

We will continue the photographic tour after a break.

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