Cathedral Cave

at Onondaga Cave State Park

In the introduction to Cathedral Cave, in his book "Caves of Missouri," J. Harlen Bretz explains "The low entrance by which the cave was discovered many years ago is heartily detestable, and never used without some special reason." This entrance lies along the Meramec River and has been securely gated for many years.

Cathedral Cave is 15,639 feet long, and the trip from the river entrance to the commercial entrance is about 5,600 feet. The remainder of the cave consists of a few side passages and the portion known as "Upstream Cathedral," which was not mapped until the 1970s, due in part to its own characteristic of being intermittently "detestable." Most, if not all, of Cathedral Cave is hollowed in the Gasconade dolomite, which was laid down approximately 440 million years ago. The cave consists of two distinct sections: a dimensionally larger and presumably older passage with its entrance high on the campground valley hillside; and the much longer, narrower, younger and lower (both in passage size and elevation) cave stream passage, which intersects the stream at right angles near the Cathedral column - the premier speleothem in the cave.

The cave was first entered by Fair and Everett Pinnell in 1919, though Lester Dill claimed to have seen the entrance five years earlier. Locals explored the cave, and the current commercial entrance was dug around 1930. The property owner, Timmerman Neilsen, engaged Al Keber to manage the cave in competition with Onondaga Cave and the portion of Onondaga which was being shown under the name of Missouri Caverns. Cathedral Cave remained open until gas rationing concurrent with WWII cut off the supply of tourists. The cave was acquired by Dill and Lyman Riley in the early 1950s when they bought Onondaga, but its only use during this era was by the MSM Spelunkers as a research cave.

When it looked like the Meramec Park Lake project would flood portions of Onondaga and Cathedral caves, interest was renewed in Cathedral Cave. Dill recommercialized it from 1973-75, installing concrete walkways, handrails, and light fixtures. The cave opened for business, but was never a real moneymaker. It closed in 1978 after the lake project was defeated in a regional referendum, and became part of the state park system in 1981. Sometime in this period, the cave was vandalized. Wire and lighting fixtures were removed, apparently for scrap. The cave is currently being shown as a lantern tour on weekends by the park staff.

The commercial section of the cave contains much flowstone, several slump pits, a natural bridge and a nearly 80-foot ceiling. Stromatolites (fossilized algal beds), wind-bent stalactites and great amounts of cave coral are outstanding features.

About 1,200 feet into the cave, just beyond the second slump pit and before the 65 foot switchback, is the CCM (Cathedral Cave, Mo.) Seismic Station, which is an underground earthquake monitoring node operated by St. Louis University. Data picked up at this station goes overland via fiber optic cable to the visitor center, where it is processed by a minicomputer and uplinked by satellite to the National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colo. More information on earthquakes and the station is available from park staff. The seismic station was installed in 1989, and the box containing it can be seen from the tourist trail.

Although there is water at the higher elevations in the cave, the base stream of the cave enters on the right at the foot of the switchback. About 9,000 feet of cave lie upstream; notorious for its long, low water crawls, punctuated by two huge rooms--the Octopus Room (named for its many side passages) and the Big Room, one of the larger underground chambers in the state park system. Few trips are taken into this area because of the difficulty, the water hazards and a desire to preserve this part of the cave as a sanctuary for cave life.

One example of this, easily visible from the trail at this point, are frequent sightings of grotto salamanders (Typhlotrition speleaus). These are present, but extremely rare in the toured sections of Onondaga Cave. Here, they are almost (but not quite) a regular feature of the tour. Pipistrelles and myotine bats, cave and slimy salamanders, camel crickets, wolf spiders, and pickerel frogs are other commonly encountered cave residents.

The commercial trail ends about 200 feet beyond where the stream enters at a 25 ft. high, 15 ft. wide, 10 ft. thick column known as the Cathedral. This speleothem was briefly renamed the "Liberty Bell" by Dill, for his opening of the cave in the bicentennial year of 1976. Of course, he also renamed the cave "Missouri Caverns" causing no end of confusion to visitors who know part of Onondaga Cave by that name, or who visited Cathedral Cave under that name in the 1970s.

The cave stream passage, but not the tour route, continues another 4,100 feet out to the river entrance. Most of this passage is stooping to walking along very wet, slightly decorated stream canyon with a few outstanding speleothems, and much sharp chert and dolomite scalloping of the cave walls. A massive rimstone dam is one of the major features of this area. Approximately 1,000 feet from the natural entrance, the cave stream siphons to the left. The stream eventually emerges in the Meramec River, near the far bank, as evidenced by a dye tracing in 1991. No one has actually been through the siphon. The less damp right passage leads to the natural entrance, now guarded by a locked gate. This section of the cave becomes a chert crawl dipping down into "nasties" at at least two points.

Cathedral Cave was originally mapped by two of J. Harlen Bretz' students in 1947 - two women, named Florence (Robinson and Rucker), who also mapped Round Spring Caverns. They left the mapping of upstream Cathedral Cave to John Schwartz, John Oberschelp, Gary Weinhold and others who did an extensive biological inventory in the early 1970s, when the cave was under threat of partial flooding from the proposed Meramec Dam. Their map and findings were published in "Cathedral Cave--A Biological Study" in the fall 1976 issue of Missouri Speleology, the journal of the Missouri Speleological Survey.

During this early '70s era, concrete walkways, handrails and a fluorescent lighting system were installed. Because Dill fully expected to lose the cave, no unusual care was taken to preserve speleothems or even clean up the construction debris. It is the effects of this second commercialization which are currently being removed from the cave. The proposed dam was defeated in a referendum in 1978, and commercial operation of the cave ceased. Sometime between when it closed and when the property was acquired as a state park, in 1981 - after the death of Mr. Dill - the cave was broken into and vandalized, apparently for the scrap value of the light fixtures and wire. The walkways and railings were left untouched, as were the "wire runs"--places where the electrical cable had been encased in concrete to hide and protect it. Glass shards and even entire fluorescent tubes remained in the cave as well. The cave remained closed to the general public until 1984. Part of the official management policy for the cave now forbids unsupervised trips in it.

Under the auspices of the Volunteers In Parks (VIP) program, cavers and citizens have been working for many years to restore Cathedral Cave, by removing construction debris, concrete, wire and doing speleothem repair. The aim is to restore the cave to the most natural appearance possible, consistent with its use as a toured cave.