The History of Onondaga Cave

at Onondaga Cave State Park

The land surrounding Onondaga Cave had been settled for some time before the cave was discovered.

1850 - George and Statirah Cresswell moved here from Washington County with Statirah's adopted family, the Allisons. On the Meramec River, near Saranac Springs, the Cresswells started by building a mill. Often widowed, George married five times and fathered 14 children. He was county surveyor in 1874.

Davis Mill

historic photo of Davis Mill

1881 - After a large flood destroyed Cresswell's mill, the property was purchased by William Henry Rollosion Davis, who built a new mill farther back from the river at Davis Spring (Onondaga Spring).

1886 - It was while examining the spring's outlet on the millpond that Charles Christopher, a local resident, realized that a cave lay beyond. Later he and two friends, John Eaton and Mitis Horine, borrowed a jon boat and squeezed it and themselves into the cave for a day-long exploration. Impressed with their discovery, Christopher and Eaton went into partnership and acquired the land that was over the cave, and adjacent to the Davis property. Thus, they began development of their "Mammothe Cave of Missouri" and a land dispute with Davis that would continue for more than half a century.

1897 - Money for development of the cave was scarce. Christopher and Eaton had difficulty deciding whether to develop it for tours or as a mine. Cave mineral deposits or "cave onyx" were in demand for building stone, and other caves in the area were being mined. The cave was surveyed for mining purposes, but tours were given also. Arthur Hitch, a member of the first tour in 1897, published a brochure on the cave using flash powder photographs that were taken by Eaton.

1899 - Davis died and amidst all of the property transfers, the Davis property was sold to the Bothe, a St. Louis group headed by George Bothe, Sr. However, Artressia Davis, William's widow, was never satisfied with the arrangements.

1902 - After more than 15 years, Eaton got discouraged and sold his holdings to Eugene Hunt Benoist of the Indian Creek Land Co. on May 7, 1902. Disheartened, Christopher sold to the Bothe group, whose intent was to mine the cave.

Bothe and Philip Franck formed a company for the purpose of mining the cave. Some test mining was done, but the cave's small entrance and a drop in the "cave onyx" prices made mining uneconomical. "Cave onyx" was too soft and brittle for use as a building stone. Instead, the cave was opened as a tourist attraction along the Frisco railroad during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

1904 - A name for the cave was chosen from the names of three Indian tribes by Myrtle Land. The cave was named after a tribe of the Iroquois. Onondaga means "People of the Mountain."

1910 - Bothe sold the property to his niece, Catharine Weinborg.

1913 - Weinborg leased the cave to Bob Bradford, who eventually bought the cave, or so he thought. The property disputes with Artressia Davis (also known as Aunt Trissy) continued and a new dispute arose with Dr. William Mook and the Indian Creek Land Co.

1930 - Dr. Mook, who had leased the Benoist property for a doctor's resort, got word from Ed Houser and Edward Myers of Cuba about an interesting discovery. About one-half of Onondaga Cave was under Dr. Mook's land. With his brother, Robert Lee Mook, serving as manager of Missouri Caverns, Inc., Dr. Mook had a tunnel dug into Onondaga Cave and erected a barbed wire fence across the Big Room at the supposed property line. Bradford and his tours were told to stop trespassing.

Bradford had problems. Fair and Everett Pinnell had explored a nearby cave, Cathedral Cave, and its owner, Timmerman Nielsen, opened it commercially under the management of Al Keber.

1932 - Missouri Caverns opened as the first electrically lighted Missouri Ozarks cave. (The stone ruins to the east of and below State Road H, just up from the current visitor center parking lot, are the former Missouri Caverns buildings. The entrance into the cave from this location has been sealed.)

With the opening of Missouri Caverns, Bradford had more competition--this time from his own cave! He had had success with road signs as automobiles replaced train travel. However, Missouri Caverns was closer to the highway, and Mook's "Cave--Drive In" sign was intercepting his business. As the court battles continued, other battles went on also.

1934 - Senatorial candidate Harry S Truman and the Democrats had a picnic and tour of Missouri Caverns. On the same day, the Republicans toured Onondaga Cave. They met at the fence and an underground political debate ensued.

1935 - On May 7, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mooks and the Indian Creek Land Co. This brought little comfort to Mook, who had died in November of 1934.

c.a. 1936

c.a. 1936 photo of people in a boat inside the cave

1937 - Bradford, in his seventies, pushed forward at Onondaga Cave. He built the Cool Room; a motel at the cave's mouth cooled by the cave air.

1938 - Bradford had a walkout exit from the cave dug. (This is the entrance, which we still use today.) Prior to this, tourists went in and out by boat through an opening at the spring; after this, they boated in and walked out.

Now it was Lee Mook who had legal problems. He was suing his brother William's other heirs, the Barnard Hospital, over their respective shares of the estate. To add insult to injury, it was Bernard Hospital that had loaned Bradford the money to make improvements to Onondaga Cave.

The legal problems at Missouri Caverns plus the decrease in tourism during World War II caused it to be closed. Cathedral Cave also ceased operation at this time, and with the death of Bradford, Onondaga Cave's future was shaky.

1943 - Aunt Trissy died at the age of 95, after unsuccessfully suing virtually every operator of the cave during her life.

1945 - Mary Bradford sold out to the Barnard Hospital. For truly the first time, Onondaga Cave had one owner. Charles Rice, a director of the hospital, gained control of Onondaga Cave, Missouri Caverns and Cathedral Cave. Freed of the problems that had plagued Bradford, he hired Al Bryan as manager and began improvements. Rural electrification enabled the entire cave to be lighted, and the old generator at Missouri Caverns was replaced. New trails, stairs and bridges were constructed, and Davis Mill was torn down. These improvements were still going on when Rice died in 1949.

Lester Dill and Lyman Riley
Lester Dill and Lyman Riley

1953 - The Rice estate sold the property to Lester B. Dill and Lyman Riley. At this time the boat trips were discontinued for insurance reasons. Dill had been in the cave business since he was a boy. He had operated both Fisher and Mushroom caves at Meramec State Park and developed Saltpetre Cave into Meramec Caverns. Riley had been a teacher and had worked at both Meramec Caverns and Onondaga Cave. This sale began a time of great popularity for the cave. Riley and Dill made appearances on television game shows, celebrities visited the cave, and there were radio, television, newspaper and magazine advertisements, plus stories about the cave. Riley became an ordained minister in 1954 and held church services and performed weddings within the cave.

1967 - Riley sold his interest in the cave to Dill, retiring to pursue more church work.

As the 1970s began, Dill found Onondaga Cave in another property dispute--this time with the United States government. The U.S. Congress had approved a dam on the Meramec River near Pacific in 1938 for flood control. However, in 1943, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to relocate the dam upstream near Meramec State Park. At a public hearing in 1949, Riley was one of those who spoke in favor of the dam, believing that tourism would increase and improve the local economy. The new plan was authorized by congress in 1967; it included the Meramec Dam and 30 others within the Meramec Basin.

By 1970, however, opposition to the dam, both locally and in St. Louis, was growing. Farmers wanting to keep their land and environmentalists raised objections to the dam on environmental, economic and engineering grounds.

1973 - Dill joined the opposition after it was discovered that the lake would actually flood up to 80 percent of Onondaga Cave.

1975 - While the dam controversy raged, Dill briefly reopened Cathedral Cave under the name of its old competitor, Missouri Caverns. New trails and electric lights were installed. Because the cave was opened near the bicentennial year of 1976, the Cathedral Bell, a giant column, was renamed the Liberty Bell. This operation was unsuccessful, and the cave closed again shortly thereafter. Vandals eventually destroyed the lighting system and visitor building.

1978 - Although not binding, a public referendum was held on the issue on Aug. 8 and 64 percent of the voters opposed the dam. Congress took its cue from this, and the deauthorization bill was signed into law on Dec. 19, 1981.

1980 - In another twist of fate, Dill died on Aug. 13 at the age of 81, one and one-half years before the dam deauthorization.

1981 - With the aid of The Nature Conservancy and the cooperation of the Dill estate, Onondaga Cave became a state park, dedicated to the memory of Dill.

Dedication Ceremony
a crowd of people listen to a speaker

1982 - The park was officially dedicated on June 13 and at the same time received a plaque designating it as a National Natural Landmark. Onondaga Cave State Park continues to offer cave tours, both of Onondaga and Cathedral caves, and to offer many other forms of recreation.

1986 - A large celebration was held commemorating the 100th year since the cave's discovery. Under the management of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Division of State Parks, Onondaga Cave enters its second century more secure from outside threats.