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America’s caverns are wonders that will always hold our imaginations

What looks like stalactites and stalagmites growing toward each other is an illusion. This is a shallow cave lake in Luray Caverns that reflects the stalactites growing from the ceiling of Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
What looks like stalactites and stalagmites growing toward each other is an illusion. This is a shallow cave lake in Luray Caverns that reflects the stalactites growing from the ceiling of Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Special to the Sun Herald

Did your long-ago geography teacher give you a memory trick for reciting the difference between stalactites and stalagmites?

Mine did, but when I explored one of the nation’s show caverns the magic of the underworld zapped it from memory.

“Anyone remember that ditty we learned in school?” I say to no one in particular as we descend into a wonderland of rock icicles of unimaginable shapes and sizes.

I was impressed by how many remembered that stalactites go down and stalagmites go up.

Eventually, I pull from memory the letter trick: Stalactites have a “c” so they “cling” to the

“ceiling.” Stalagmites have a “g” so they “grow” from the “ground.”

Dictionaries tell us these words descend from the Greek word stalaktos, which means “to drip.”

Dripping rain water is responsible for the spectacular, slow-growing formations found in limestone caves. The water extracts carbon dioxide from the rock, and that in turn creates a weak carbonic acid that penetrates the stone to deposit calcite on the cave’s roof to form a growing stalactite. Water drips down from the stalactite to the cave floor and a stalagmite begins to grow upward. Very slowly.

Scientists tell us many of these limestone caverns grow at a rate of .005 inches a year, which would take about 200 years to grow 1 inch. Some grow more, some less, depending on water availability and rock composition, from limestone and marble to dolomite, gypsum, even salt.

America’s underground secrets

The United States has nearly 200 known caves and caverns that at some point in their history included tours. Not all remained financially successful. Today some of the “show caverns” — the most spectacular ones open for easy-walking public tours — are in federal and state park systems. Others are privately owned.

Who knows how many remain undiscovered? I could find no histories on Mississippi caverns but that’s not surprising given our geography. Ditto for Louisiana. Today, the opened caves closest to the Mississippi Coast are in the northern half of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Of course, no two underground caverns are alike. Some are “live,” or still have growing speleothems, as the secondary mineral deposits in caves are called. With apologies to my geography teachers, I don’t remember that weird word either.

Speleothem is also an ancient Greek word meaning “cave deposits.” The name include stalactites and stalagmites, which are “dripstones” that form columns when they meet.

Other speleothems are “flowstones” that look like curtains and stone waterfalls, and “cave crystals” that include frost-like structures and even so-called moon milk that is white.

Once seen, not forgotten

Those lucky enough to explore this underworld, no matter at what age, are unlikely to forget the vastness, beauty and curiosity of the rock formations.

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that transformed long summer drives from our Coast to Pennsylvania grandparents into explorations of whatever states we traveled. The pre-interstate roadside attractions of the 1950s and ’60s were our reward for good car behavior.

We happily fell victim to the siren calls of the painted barn advertisements that urged, “See Rock City,” “See Ruby Falls.” I retain vivid memories of the cave waterfalls near Chattanooga and The Lost Sea, “the world’s largest underground lake,” also in Tennessee.

I suspect we also visited Mount Rushmore Cave in a western trip. I was in second grade and have no memory of it, only an impression. Given this childhood background, there was no hesitation to tag along to Luray Caverns with my sister and her visiting California friend a few weeks ago.

Explore the closest to you

Luray is only a few hours drive from my Virginia home. I first visited Luray three years ago to show off America’s underworld to visiting Irish friends. I happily headed there again and today share some of those photographs, with additional photos at sunherald.com.

This amazing underworld of rock formations in the Shenandoah Valley stays a constant 54 degrees and the tour concludes with an organ recital that takes advantage of the speleothems as striker keys. Like all show caverns, this one has its interesting history, starting with discovery in 1878 by the town tinsmith who felt cool air rushing out of a sink hole.

Luray promotions claim the 3 acres of caverns are 4 million years in the making.

I could wax poetic about Luray’s imaginative formations from sultan tents to dragons and fried eggs, but I won’t. Instead I suggest you add “U.S. caverns” to your bucket list. Whether a newbie or an old-timer to cave tours, a person just can’t visit too many of these mind-boggling, eye-popping natural wonders.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes this Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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