Exploring Missouri Caves

With more than 6,000 surveyed caves, Missouri is known as the “cave state,” (only the state of Tennessee has more), and not far from Route 66 there are some interesting options if underground exploration is your thing. Over the years, these hidden chambers have been used for shelter, entertainment and even as storage for the beverage industry. Today they remain one of the last frontiers of exploration for adventure seekers.

While “wild” caves are the realm of serious explorers, there are “show” caves for the rest of us. “Show” caves are simply wild caves that have been “tamed” with paved walkways, bridges, lights and hand rails so visitors can view nature’s underground beauty in safety. These awe-inspiring underground classrooms offer “lessons” in geology, hydrology and anthropology, and are best explored with a guide who can fill in the details.

Most of Missouri’s caves are found south of the Missouri River in the Ozarks where the bedrock is dolomite and limestone. The caves were formed over years, by rainwater that combined with carbon dioxide from decaying vegetation to make a weak acid. Slowly, this acid corroded the rock, cutting openings into the earth’s surface. Once water entered the underground cave environment, it’s chemistry changed, and minerals that used to dissolve, instead begin to grow on the cave’s walls, ceilings and floor. The stalagmites and stalactites are often stained by impurities such as iron, manganese and tannic acids, resulting in an amazingly showy palette of reds, oranges, browns, greys and blacks.


Missouri’s caves have been used in different manners for as long as the area was populated. Native Americans used them mostly as shallow shelters, though they sometimes went further into the interiors. Pictographs and rock art in some of the caves has caused speculation about possible ceremonial usage. However, these caves were rarely used as permanent residences.

European settlers found the caves to be good sources of water, and minerals, with mining activity flourishing in the early years. Saltpeter from Missouri caves was used to make gunpowder well into the 1860s. But the caves served other purposes too–a place for adventure, a hide-out, and all manner of strange activity from moonshining to secret societies. Caves were often the destination of choice for picnics, dances and outings.

In the early 1840s caves became very important for the beverage industry, because the constant temperature of approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit provided the ideal refrigeration necessary for the “lagering” of beer. Breweries and underground entertainment establishments prospered in the region.

The first “show cave” opened for tours in 1886. Fittingly, it was called “Mark Twain Cave,” because “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” had already made it quite famous. Following on it’s success, in the early 1900’s, the commercialization of caves became “epidemic.” Many of the current show cave operations date from that period.

Later on, in the 1950s, at the height of the “Cold War,” caves were mistakenly thought to offer protection from radioactive contamination, and were outfitted as fallout shelters in case of nuclear attack.

Around the same time, amatuer cave exploration blossomed, as weekend adventurers searched out the state’s “wild caves” in growing numbers. The far reaches of extensive caves were a “last frontier” where one could be the first to see a pristine underground chamber or leave man-made footprints.

Today there are still caves in the state waiting for their first visitor, though most tourists go to one of the spectacular show caves along the Route 66 corridor.


The largest commercial “show” cave in the state is the famed Meramec Caverns.

Beneath the fertile rolling hills of the Meramec Valley, in an underground labryinth of rare and beautiful mineral formations, visitors can marvel at jewels of nature that took thousands of years to grow. The Meramec Caverns boasts some of the rarest and largest cave formations in the world.

Rangers guide visitors along well-lighted walkways, explaining how an ancient limestone “Wine Table” and an entire 7-story mansion were built underground.

The caverns were known to the Osage Indians in the area, who told legends about cave walls with “veins of glittering yellow metal.” European explorers were curious, and in 1720 Philipp Renault went with an Osage guide, to see for himself. As their boat approached the riverbank, they could see a hole, 50 feet wide by 20 feet high, in the bluff above. Renault had found the cave, but there was no gold–just saltpeter.

However, saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, was a key ingredient in the gunpowder of the period. Mining operations soon began, and continued for 144 years, until the American Civil War, when Confederate troops destroyed a Union gunpowder facility inside the cave.

After the mining ceased, locals from Stanton, MO would hold ‘cave parties’ during summer months to avoid the extreme heat. With a huge room just inside the entrance that could hold a large crowd and a 50 foot by 50 foot dance floor, the Meramec Caverns soon became known for it’s ‘Ballroom.’ It was purchased in 1898 by Charles Ruepple, who headed the Stanton dance committee.

In 1933, the cave ownership changed hands when Ruepple sold it to Lester Dill, a cave enthusiast who wanted to develop it into a spectacular “show” cave that would be open to the public. While preparing the cave to receive tourists, Dill noticed a small crevice in one of the walls. When he inspected it closely, he felt a cool breeze flowing through the opening, so he shouted into the hole, and hearing his echo return from the other side, he knew there was more cave beyond the wall. The wall was removed, and Dill discovered an entire new cave with numerous formations in what was dubbed the ‘upper levels.’ One of the most impressive formations, the ‘Stage Curtain’, stands nearly 70 feet tall, and Dill built his show cave around this “Theatre Room.”

Less than ten years later, in the summer of 1941, during a rather severe drought the water table dropped, and cave guides noted a change in a small pool of water that spilled out of a “dead end” wall. Dill decided to go under the wall, through the water, and see what was on the other side. He found yet another large area of branching networks, and perhaps more importantly, artifacts traceable to the legendary outlaw, Jesse James. These artifacts, including strong boxes from the train robbery at Gadshill, MO, rifles, and shackles, combined with sheriffs reports and eyewitness accounts, confirm that Jesse James really did use the caverns as a hideout.

Meramec Caverns was soon attracting tourists from far and wide, thanks to roadside signs and advertisements painted on barns. The first “bumper stickers,” were created here, though they were originally called bumper signs because the vinyl and adhesive used to attach stickers to cars had not yet been developed. While visitors toured the cave, “bumper sign boys” tied Meramec Caverns bumper signs on their cars as a free souvenir.

Today visitors can take a 1 1/4 mile walking tour of the 7-story cave complex. The tour takes about an hour and a half, and is offered several times throughout the day. (For more information: Meramec Caverns website)


Within the confines of the popular Meramec state park, visitors can find many “wild” caves (there are more than 40 caves in the park), but for the less intrepid, guided 90-minute one mile walking tours of Fisher Cave offer an interesting adventure.

Fisher Cave provides visitors with a more “natural” experience of cave exploration than the Meramec Caverns. The visits are led by Naturalists who take small groups through low, narrow streamside passages into huge rooms filled with calcite deposits. Moving from one outstanding cave scene to another visitors can see well-preserved bear claw marks and learn about cave wildlife amidst a vast array of calcite deposits ranging from intricate hellectites to massive columns 30 feet tall.

The history of human interaction with Fisher’s Cave is spotty though naturalists have discovered gun shells, a cigar box, hairpins and other historical bits and pieces.

Native Americans left little evidence of their presence here, though they certainly occupied the cave occassionally — probably during late summer and early fall when the cave stream flow is minimal. It’s gravel floor and low, wet entrance made Fisher Cave somewhat unattracive as a shelter during most of the year. It was prone to flooding. And besides, nearby Indian Cave, with a high entrance ceiling and spacious, dry floor, was much preferred.

When the European came, they began mining. As early as 1700, a lead mine was active at the mouth of the Meramec River. Gold was never found, but miners discovered traces of silver. Evidence of early mining is present throughout Meramec State Park, where you can still see the pockmarked areas where miners dug into the ground looking for lead, copper, and iron. These park pits date from the early and mid-1800s. Like the Meramec Caverns, Fisher’s Cave was a source of saltpeter and was used for gunpowder production in the early 1800s. Graffiti in the cave dates from the 1840s, and vandalism of stalactites and stalagmites from later decades of the 1800s.

After the civil war, as caves began to achieve fame for their beauty and size, the Fisher Cave “ballroom” became known as the Governor’s Ballroom because, according to legend, Missouri Governor Thomas Fletcher held an inaugural ball there in 1865. This is almost certainly a myth. While the ballroom was used from time to time by St. Louis’s wealthy and elite class, the idea that an inaugural ball took place at the close of the Civil War in a bitterly contested border state in itself strains credibility. There is no mention in the newspapers of an 1865 ball. Governor Fletcher, however, may have attended a ball in Fisher Cave in 1867. It appears that Lester Dill (who operated the Fisher’s Cave tours from 1927 to 1932, before taking on the Meramec Caverns) was responsible for the story of the inaugural ball.

The state began acquiring land for a park in 1926, and assumed control of the cave in 1932. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) set up two camps in the area in the 1930s, and Meramec had 220 enrollees. The CCC, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, enrolled unemployed young men into a peacetime force for conservation and public works. Three million men participated, and the Army helped to organize the program because it was so vast. Many CCC buildings throughout the United States still stand, most designed by National Park Service architects in a style called “rustic park architecture.” The walkway, steps, and bridges in Fisher Cave were built by the CCC in the 1930s.

The walkways along with some modest artificial lighting make the Fisher’s Cave experience safe for park visitors of all ages, while still maintaining a “natural” ambiance. (For more information: Fishers Cave info from Missouri State Parks website)


Another spetacular underground wonderland along the Route 66 corridor, is the Onondaga Cave, a National Natural Landmark, in the Onondaga Cave State Park. Considred by some to be the most beautifully decorated cave in Missouri, Onondaga has ponds of water so still that calcite crystals form on the surface making little “rafts” that seem to float and “lily pads” that resemble water lilys but are actually calcite crystals formed on top of stalagmites in the water.

Within the park, there are several different cave tours, including some that are not illuminated by electric lights. The absence of artificial lights helps prevent algae, creating a better habitat for bats and other wildlife. Approximately 60 different species have been found living in Onondaga Cave, including the bats, frogs, salamanders, amphipods, snails and an occasional fish. Visitors must carry laterns here, and according to park naturalists, most people really enjoy the lantern tours because “it’s like exploring the cave on their own.”

Guides at Onondaga customize their talks, so visitors interested in the geologic aspects of the cave may learn how the deposits are formed over eons, while those more interested in the human history may hear interesting anecdotes, like the details of a feud between two families that strung barbed wire across the cave to separate their claims!

It seems Onondaga was being run as a tour cave by Bob Bradford, who had purchased it from the original discoverer, meanwhile, a local doctors’ resort occuppied the land above ground, which was leased by Dr. William Mook. When Mook found out that the lucrative cave operation was going on underneath “his” property, he dug a tunnel into the cave and erected a barbed wire fence across “The Big Room” at the “property line.” Mook told Bradford to “stop tresspassing.” Encounters at the barbed wire fence grew common and absurd. In 1934, Missouri senatorial candidate Harry S. Truman toured Missouri Caverns with an entourage of Democrats. On the same day, a group of Republicans toured Onondaga Cave. The parties met at the barbed wire fence and spent the afternoon slinging partisan mud.

The long-lasting feud between Mook and Bradford eventually became a state supreme court case that set a precdent for the establishment of underground propertry rights impacting the quarrying, mining, oil and gas industries across Missouri! (For more information: Onondaga Cave State Park website)

Here are a few other caves that are easily accessible from Route 66:

  • Bridal Cave: just north of Camdenton, off Hwy. 5 on Lake Road 5-88, can also be reached by water on the 10 1/2 mile marker on the Big Niangua Arm of the Lake. This is the oldest cave in the area. Formed by the Ozark upheaval that created the Ozark Mountains 42-46 million years ago, it is adorned with massive columns, stalactites, stalagmites and draperies all the way to the sparkling crystal clear Spirit Lake. Bridal Cave, in keeping with the tradition of the Indian legend, has hosted over 1325 weddings in the stalactite adorned Bridal Chapel.
  • Jacob’s Cave: off of TT, north of Gravois Mills, is the largest cave in the Lake area. It is famous for its depth illusion, reflective pools, ceiling sponge-work, prehistoric bones (Mastadon, bear, and Peccary), and the world’s largest Geode. On the mile-long tour, you will see every type of cave formation imaginable, from millions of soda straws, massive stalactites and columns, to delicate helectites. Evidence of six ice ages and 3 earthquakes can be seen.
  • Fantasy World Caverns: located off of Hwy. 54 between Bagnell Dam and Eldon. First inhabited by Indians, it was later used by white men for a dance hall and later as a skating rink, before being developed into a Show cave. With 3 levels and a large lake in the entrance, each turn has an intriguing surprise of beauty. Of special note is the large domed ceilings draped with iron stained formations, two natural water falls and the canyon passages.
  • Ozark Caverns: a state owned cave. Great care is taken not to disturb the natural setting. The cave stream exits the mouth of the cave and forms a fin in front of the cave (fresh water swamp); too shallow for fish, but just right for a vast array of exotic plant and animal life native to this area. Ozark Caverns is famous for its Angels Shower, a must for any cave enthusiast. Tours are conducted through the cave with electric lanterns.

Leave a Reply