Cave Science and History

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Cave Science and History2017-05-25T21:07:25+00:00

Cave History

Fairy Caves: One of the first caverns in the world to be lit by electricity

Photo courtesy of the Frontier Historical Society, Glenwood Springs, Co, Schutte Collection

The Historic Fairy Caves, an attraction within Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, was a thriving tourist destination in the 1890s, thanks to Charles W. Darrow, a pioneering Glenwood Springs attorney. Darrow and his family homesteaded the top of Iron Mountain, including the cave entrance. Today, you can tour Historic Fairy Caves as a part of the Cave Tour.

Darrow opened Fairy Caves to visitors in 1895. At that time the known extent of the cave was about 800 feet. Today Glenwood Caverns, including the Historic Fairy Caves, has more than 16,000 known feet. When the Fairy Caves opened to the public, visitors could get to the caves by walking up a trail, by riding a horse or burro, or by being transported in style in a horse-drawn carriage. Today, you travel to the Historic Fairy Caves in a gondola on the Iron Mountain Tramway.

Darrow installed a pathway up to the cave, and by 1897 Darrow had wires strung up the mountain from the hydroelectric plant in the town of Glenwood Springs. Glenwood Springs was a popular tourist destination during the late 1800s and was one of the first cities in the United States with electric lights. Thanks to the progressive citizens of Glenwood Springs, Fairy Caves became one of the first caverns in the world to be lit by electricity.

Today, you can see the holes in the walls of the cave where the electric lights were installed more than a hundred years ago.

Historic Photo Exclamation Point

Photo Credit: Frontier Historical Society

In 1897 Darrow blasted a tunnel from the innermost part of the known cave to the open air looking down on the Roaring Fork Valley and the Colorado River. Today, you can stand on the same platform that Darrow built on the steep cliff high up on Iron Mountain and named Exclamation Point, and enjoy breathtaking views that extend for miles both east and west.

At the time Darrow was developing the site as a tourist destination, the scientific community knew little about the preservation of caves. Unfortunately, when heat and outside air are allowed into a cave as was done with the portion of the cave known as the Fairy Caves, the cave stops growing and living.
Today, you can experience both the Historic Fairy Caves and the living Glenwood Caverns sections of the cave that have been protected and preserved by the current owners, Steve and Jeanne Beckley. The living caves are moist, maintain a constant 52 degrees and continue to grow the stunning crystalline formations. Although the Historic Fairy Caves had been damaged by neglect, since the Beckleys have owned them and applied rigorous preservation methods, the Historic Fairy Caves are beginning to grow again.

Darrow’s sons operated the cave until 1915 when it closed. On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, the Darrows closed the caves to the public. Historic Fairy Caves were closed for 82 years until the Beckleys, using all contemporary scientific cave preservation methods, opened them to the public in 1999.

To learn more about the history of the caves, read Eighth Wonder, The story of Glenwood Caverns and the historic Fairy Cave, by Richard Rhinehart, Mandy Gauldin and Sheila Kendall.  This book is approved by owners, Steve and Jeanne Beckley.

Cave Science

Glenwood Caverns, a living cave near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and a part of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, is a sustainable resources success story that reflects what can be done to both preserve priceless natural resources and also make them accessible to the public.

Caves depend on moisture and humidity in order to keep dripping and growing cave formations. Commercial cave owners in the 1890s did not understand this and allowed portions of the cave to dry out. The public enjoyed the caverns from 1895 through 1917, and then the Darrow family, owners of the caves since their ancestor Charles Darrow homesteaded the area in the 1890s, closed the caverns.

Unfortunately, when the caves were closed to the public, the entrance was not sealed. From 1917 through 1961, the caves were not protected from casual visitors and several generations of Glenwood Springs’ teenagers and hikers explored the site, often removing cave formations as souvenirs. The known portion of the Fairy Caves was exposed to the dry outside air and eventually dried up and stopped growing.

In 1952, the modern exploration of Glenwood Caverns began. Members of the Colorado Grotto Club, led by Glenwood Springs’ resident James Kitt, visited the known Fairy Caves. These experienced cavers guessed that this one section was only a small part of a much larger cavern network. In 1953, the group returned and began exploring in earnest. The group first found new passages into the mountain from the Fairy Caves. These new areas, christened the Register Room and the Pendant Room, were large and doubled the size of the known caverns. Fortunately, these new areas were also living cave, still in its pristine ancient state, still dripping and growing.

In 1954, the cavers felt a breeze blowing from a hole, followed that airflow, and discovered what they named the Drum Room and the Canyon. In 1960, curious and courageous cavers discovered a vertical passage at the back of the Fairy Caves and followed this narrow passage 30 feet down. In one spot, the passage shrinks to 8 ½ inches wide. The cavers squeezed through this tiny space by exhaling, squeezing downwards, stopping, inhaling, exhaling again, and continuing to slowly move through the narrow opening. This experience led the cavers to name the passage the Jam Crack.

After the cavers had negotiated the Jam Crack, they were faced with another narrow passage, roughly horizontal. For obvious reasons the cavers named this passage Purgatory and continued to exhale, squeeze, inhale and painfully work their way through the Purgatory passage.

The trip through Purgatory was worth it, because the cavers found several enormous rooms with a fantastic array of pristine formations. The cavers named the two largest rooms The Barn and King’s Row. The reason for naming The Barn is clear; after all, it is big as a barn, but the cavers gave the fanciful name King’s Row because this huge room has a series of formations that look like chess pieces.

Today, you can stand in both The Barn and King’s Row and view the stunning formations, without having to squeeze through the Jam Crack or go through Purgatory to get there. Just walk down a safe set of stairs with hand railings, accompanied by a knowledgeable and experienced guide, and view these same awesome formations discovered by the cavers.

Peter P. Prebble, Robert Wilber, and Robert O’Connell, members of the Colorado Grotto Club, bought the caves and surrounding acreage from the Darrow family in 1961. Soon after the purchase, they installed a locked gate at the entrance to the caverns, effectively barring entrance to the uninvited. Prebble, Wilber, and O’Connell planned to reopen the caves, but their plans did not materialize.

From 1961 through 1998, a handful of cavers continued to explore the caverns, but the caves were still closed to the public. Steve Beckley, who grew up in the Rocky Mountains and had been a caver since childhood, was a student at the Colorado School of Mines when he read about the Fairy Caves in an out-of-print book, Caves of Colorado.

Beckley graduated and began working as a petroleum engineer, but he never forgot about the Fairy Caves. In 1982, Beckley contacted the owners of the caves to explore development of the caves to admit the public; however, Beckley and the owners were unable to agree.

He persisted for the next sixteen years and, in 1998, reached an agreement with the owners under which he would be allowed to develop the property. During those years of negotiations, he continued to study what information was known about the caves. In 1992, for the first time, Steve and his wife and partner in Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Jeanne Beckley, put on kneepads and headlamps and squeezed through Jam Crack.

After this exploration trip, the Beckleys vowed to do whatever they could to gain control of the caves and reopen the historic section and open a new living section to the public. In 1998, they began the substantial improvement projects necessary to allow the public to view this natural wonder. First they graded and graveled a road up to the cave entrance and cleared the Historic Fairy Caves of the debris that had collected there for decades.

The Beckleys hired Evan Anderson, a local caver with knowledge in wiring, to rewire the Historic Fairy Caves by replacing the 1897 wiring and installing modern equipment to illuminate and emphasize the formations. When you go inside the Historic Fairy Caves, you can see the holes in the sides where the lights guided visitors in 1897.

Because the purpose of development was to make the living cave accessible to the public, and still not harm the cave, the Beckleys decided to carve a new tunnel into the mountain, one that could control temperature and humidity and not harm the formations. They hired surveyors to help determine the proper path for the new tunnel. Beckley and his workers squeezed through the Jam Crack several times to set up antennas deep within the Barn to guide the surveyors. After the surveyors had completed the measurements, they hired Dean Mussati, lead engineer of Mining and Environmental Services, to blast the tunnel 132 feet through the cliff.

Prior to the completion of the tunnel, they installed two airtight doors in the new tunnel to form an airlock. The doors are 50 feet apart so that when visitors enter the airlock, the door closes behind them. With the help of this airlock, the ideal humidity and temperature of the caverns can be maintained, ensuring the continuing growth of the age-old formations. The Beckleys enlisted cavers to install temperature and humidity monitors to ensure that the integrity of the ancient formations is maintained.

The interior of the cave is a stable 52 degrees year round. Visitors coming in from outside the caverns feel cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Because of Steve and Jeanne Beckley’s vision and courage, Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves are now protected, able to continue to grow naturally, and yet are accessible to the public. The Colorado Governor’s Office of Tourism recognized the Beckleys for their exemplary preservation efforts and selected them as the only winners of the 2001 Governor’s Award for Outstanding Community Tourism Initiative.

Glenwood Caverns, a living cavern system that is a part of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, contains hundreds of cave formations ranging from tiny to gigantic. At Glenwood Caverns, you can see the formations and learn the scientific theories of the creation of the formations, known as speleothems.

  • Stalactites, the most well known formations, hang down from the ceiling, are usually carrot-shaped, and are the result of billions of droplets of calcite-bearing water. As each drop runs down to the tip of the Stalactite, it leaves a minuscule bit of calcite. The calcite sticks to the Stalactite, adding one tiny building block to the formation.
  • Stalagmites are the mirror opposites of Stalactites; they grow up, not down. Stalagmites generally are shorter and thicker than their companion Stalactites on the ceiling above. They are thicker because the falling water droplets tend to splash and spread out as the Stalagmites gradually build up from the floor of the cave. Both Stalactites and Stalagmites grow at an incredibly slow rate, roughly the width of a human hair each year. The Stalactites and Stalagmites visitors see in Glenwood Caverns are hundreds of thousands of years old, maybe even millions.
  • Soda Straws are a type of Stalactite that hang from the ceiling in long, hollow tubes which look very much like a soda straw. The water drops deposit calcite around their outer edges, forming a ring on the ceiling of the cave. As the rings lengthen, they form hollow tubes. Each drop of water travels down the inside of the soda straw and deposits calcite on the open end of the straw. When a Soda Straw becomes plugged, the water continues to drip from the ceiling, gradually covering the long, slender straw and building up the calcite deposits to become Stalactites.
  • Cave Bacon is formed when the water drops flow down a sloped ceiling and build up calcite in a thin line before dropping to the floor. As the formations grow, the new rock folds and curls, creating graceful curves. Some of these thin formations are colored by stripes of iron oxide or other organic solutions giving them the look of gigantic strips of bacon. The Cave Bacon formations in Glenwood Caverns are very realistic and look good enough to eat.
  • Cave Popcorn is formed by the slow seeping of water from the walls of the caverns. The knobby formations resemble popcorn or clusters of grapes. Because Cave Popcorn is one of the few cave formations that can form both in the open air and under water, the current scientific theory is that the calcite-laden water is forced out of the walls from internal pressure.
  • Flowstone formations are created when water oozes over the cave walls or floors and the calcite in the water gradually hardens into a smooth, shiny surface. Hardened calcite itself is colorless, but Flowstone can be colorful if minerals from the soil and rock add new hues. Flowstone formations look like melted cake icing or a frozen waterfall.
  • Helictite formations are created similarly to Soda Straws, from water flowing through a small central channel. However, pressure and air movement cause these formations to twist at odd angles. The word Helictite comes from the Greek word helix, which means to spiral. (e.g., the diagram of DNA is a spiraled double helix.) Helictitesare crystalline and cream-colored or white. They can be very fine, almost hair-like, or thicker, branching out like elk antlers. Sometime Helictite formations resemble a bowl of spaghetti.
  • Frostwork (Aragonite Crystals) is created when calcite-laden water that holds a high concentration of magnesium evaporates. The magnesium inhibits the buildup of calcite, thus allowing Frostwork to form. The crystalline formation grows needles in random directions, resembling the naked branches of a tree or cactus. The glittery Aragonite Crystal formation resembles Rocky Mountain frost on a pine tree. Frostwork formations are the most intricate and fragile of all cave formations.
  • Gypsum Flowers grew on the walls of Glenwood Caverns when water pressure within the walls forced its way into the air of a dryer portion of the caverns. The calcium sulfate in the water is deposited and hardens into gypsum. Changes in the water flow rate cause the Gypsum Flower petals to curve.
  • Moonmilk is a combination of carbonate materials, including calcite and gypsum, which form very fine crystals. These crystals are a semi-liquid, cheese-like substance and Glenwood Caverns has Moonmilk on the floors, walls, and ceilings of the big rooms. This white formation is pasty when wet and crumbly and powdery when dry. Because it breaks easily, visitors and cavers can easily damage Moonmilk formations. Visitors to Glenwood Caverns are cautioned not to touch anything, because the slightest touch will harm the delicate formations, especially Moonmilk. Legend says that the Native American inhabitants of this area used Moonmilk for medicinal purposes, making a poultice to stop bleeding, to bring down fevers, to cure diarrhea, and to ease upset stomachs.
  • Cave Clouds are smooth layers of minerals that coat boulders on the walls and ceilings of the caverns and create fascinating formations that resemble puffy clouds. The Cave Clouds in Glenwood Caverns cover a portion of the walls and ceilings in the historic section.

You can see many of these cave formations within Glenwood Caverns. Throughout Glenwood Caverns’ history, cavers, owners, and tourists have named some of the specific formations visitors enjoy.

  • Jabba the Hutt is a fat round Stalagmite that resembles the Star Wars character. Jabba the Hutt holds court near the visitor platform in King’s Row. Perhaps he is squatting beside the platform to keep his guard up in case Luke Skywalker should be among the tourists.
  • The Wedding Cake is a Stalagmite festooned with icing and frills with a covering of Flowstone that resembles a multilayer white wedding cake.
  • The Bedroom is a large room that is a favorite place for cavers to sleep when they are exploring and restoring the caverns.
  • The Chess Pieces in the King’s Row Room are enormous standing Stalagmites that look like the King, a Pawn, and a Rook in a row on a chessboard. Visitors, who are more than 158 feet underground at that point, can see the Chess Pieces from a safe platform with hand railings.

You are encouraged to enjoy both the science and the fantasy that combine to create the magic of Glenwood Caverns and the Historic Fairy Caves.

Michelle Lyons, an honors premed student at Liberty University, Virginia, in 1999 discovered and preliminarily identified seven previously unknown bacteria gathered from water in the unexplored closed portions of Glenwood Caverns, living caverns near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

While Lyons was an honors science student in Rifle, Colorado, she became interested in identification of potential bacteria in Glenwood Caverns as a project for an international science competition. Under the scientific direction of Dennis Russell, a laboratory technician at Claggett Memorial Hospital, Lyons persuaded the cave owners, Steve and Jeanne Beckley, that she had a sufficiently rigorous research protocol established to begin the identification process. When she began the project, Lyons did not know what she would find, but the geology of the area and similar experiments at Lechuguilla Cave, a closed research cave in New Mexico, persuaded her and her scientific mentor that there was a strong possibility that new bacteria might be found within this cave system.

Lyons contacted Diana Northrup, a biological researcher then doing research at Lechuguilla Cave, and Kathy Lavoie, a biological researcher then doing research at the University of Michigan-Flint, and after those discussions defined a strict scientific research method to gather and test the specimens.

“New bacteria present an opportunity to find new chemical substances,” said Lyons. “Research conducted at both Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico, found that certain types of previously unknown bacteria destroy breast cancer cells and bone marrow cancer cells. That research is still under way, and I think that the new bacteria from Glenwood Caverns will add to this body of knowledge and help in finding new substances for medical uses.”

After defining a controlled research method, Lyons entered the cave. Guided by Evan Anderson, an experienced caver and one of only a handful of people who had been in this portion of the cave since its discovery in early 1999, Lyons put on caving gear, applied the rigorous sterile techniques she had learned to keep from contaminating the site, and crawled on her belly with her headlamp lit for hours through tight areas deep into the cave. Before entering the South Shore area where she was going to collect water samples, she and her guide changed clothes, left their caving boots outside, put on clean clothes and socks, and entered the collection area. Cave research demands the most rigorous possible control of the environment to keep from bringing in bacteria from the outside world.

“An underground lake lay black, still and mysterious inside a sparkling white room, covered with flowstone, aragonite crystals, and gleaming white stalactites and stalagmites. It was truly amazing! I was in a place that almost no one had ever entered,” said Lyons.

Lyons gathered samples of the lake water in sterile laboratory tubes. After returning to the surface, exercising extreme care not to leave any possible human trace behind, Lyons took the samples to the laboratory at Claggert Memorial Hospital, and put them in an incubator, some with oxygen and some without oxygen. Some identified bacteria can live with and some without oxygen. After 48 hours Lyons was able to identify eight distinct colonies both by their colors and their physical and chemical characteristics.

Lyons then began the tedious process of identifying the eight different bacteria. With the help of the hospital’s computer system, Lyons tentatively identified seven unknown bacteria and one known bacteria.

“I theorized that the one known bacteria was probably a transient bacteria we had accidentally carried in on our skin or clothing. In a cave it is very unusual to find seven potentially new bacteria and only one transient bacteria. Because there were so many potentially new bacteria, I asked for help from the scientific community,” explained Lyons.

Lyons contacted the Laboratory and Radiation Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, State of Colorado, for help in further identifying the potentially new bacteria. After reviewing the study, its procedures, and the tentative identifications, the laboratory confirmed Lyons’ conclusion that these bacteria were unknown anywhere in Colorado. Lyons then sent two bacteria samples to Electron Bioservices, in Maryland, for electron photographs. Those electron micrographs served as the basis for further identification and classification study using Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology.

At this point Lyons stopped the identification search to continue her college work.

Researchers such as Michelle Lyons continue to explore the deep recesses of the earth, within caves such as Glenwood Caverns, looking for extremophiles, organisms that exist only in extreme conditions and may hold cures to diseases like cancer and leukemia. Today the owners of Glenwood Caverns are searching for new interest by the scientific community to definitively identify the bacteria and make their uses available to the medical research community. Until other scientists are prepared to research the potential uses of these bacteria, the Beckleys will keep that portion of the cave sealed and pristine.

Cave Lore

The Battle of the Dragon & the Giant took place in misty prehistory in The Barn in Glenwood Caverns, a tourist attraction within Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

Grotto, the Dragon of Glenwood Caverns, roared and challenged Gregory the Giant, who was invading Grotto’s territory, trying to steal his favorite foods: Moonmilk, Cave Bacon, and Cave Popcorn. The ensuing shattering fight shook the earth for miles around Glenwood Caverns. Grotto unleashed a giant burst of flame, leaving ashes on the walls (Cave Clouds and Moonmilk formations). The heat from Grotto’s flaming breath was so strong that it caused steam to come up from the ground (the Vapor Caves of Glenwood Springs). Gregory the Giant fell back in defeat, leaving his footprints on the walls of the Barn (Moonmilk formations) and retreated through a hole in the wall to the Black Grotto (a huge room in Glenwood Caverns which is available only to experienced cavers).

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is a favorite vacation place for couples. The fantasy of the otherworldly formations and the cool and dark of the inside of the caverns encourage cuddling.

Lovers can enjoy the excitement of hoping for a Cave Kiss. Cave Kisses are a good luck event. Because Glenwood Caverns is a living cave, it is still growing new formations. The cave constantly forms tiny droplets of water, which fall, add to the formations below, and eventually create the fantastic formations visitors see today. Some visitors are fortunate enough to have one of these tiny drops fall on them and get a Cave Kiss. A Cave Kiss is a sign of good luck. If you could hang around a few million years, you would see those Cave Kisses build the formations seen today.

Charles W. Darrow, a pioneering Glenwood Springs attorney, opened the Fairy Caves to the public in 1895. History does not record why he chose the name Fairy Caves, but historians have speculated that it was because fish-tail-like helictites found within the cave may have reminded Darrow of the wings of fairies.

Victorians frequently discussed the possibility of the existence of fairies, and perhaps Darrow and his family were familiar with the popular works of Andrew Lang, a Scottish scholar who published an extensive best-selling book series of fairy tales for children in the late 1800s.

Fairies have always symbolized good luck and happiness. Nineteenth-century tourists, as well as today’s visitors, share a desire for good luck and happiness. Another theory of the origin of the name Fairy Caves is that one of Darrow’s daughters felt that the light from her lantern reflecting off the droplets of water in the cave looked like fairies dancing around the caves.

No matter what the real reason for the name Fairy Caves, the caves were magical and had an emotional appeal for the early Colorado pioneers. Both children and adults enjoy the fantasy of glittering fairies dancing around within the cave to bring good luck and happiness to all.