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History of Caves

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Published on May 9, 2008

Explore the history of caves in Missouri.

NARRATOR: Darkness.........For millions of years caves in Missouri existed in perpetual night. No light to illuminate the dazzling formations. No way to see the dozens of creatures that call this unique habitat home. Nothing but blackness. But sometime in the distant past....light came to the underground world.
Dwight: Certainly Missouri cave resources have been utilized from the very beginning of time, when man entered Missouri and they continue to be used to this very day. To the Paleo Indians or the period of history from about ten thousand to twenty thousand years ago, caves were a very essential means of survival to those early cultures. They used the caves for a place to live at times in the entrances, the caves provided them with a source of water, the caves were good protection against the cold of winter and the heat of summer and insect pests, but they also used the caves as a place to bury their dead, they used the resources in the cave; the clay for pottery, and the flint for their weapons and tools. So the caves were really a nucleus that let them spread out into the uplands of Missouri.
NARRATOR: Dwight Weaver is a public information officer with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. He is also an avid caver. His interests in both caves and their history makes him the states premier historian.......and Missouri's underground heritage is a rich field of study.
Dwight: It's that mystic of wanting to find out what's around the next corner, and the fact that caves are totally dark and the only light you have is the artificial light you bring with you, means that, just within a few feet of you, it's totally dark and that provides a great deal of mystery. We have always been a people who liked adventure, who liked to explore, people came west because they were attracted to the resources in these areas.
NARRATOR: In the 1700's settlers from the east began to enter the state of Missouri. Like the Native Americans before them, they used caves for shelter and protection, but they found another resource in caves necessary for survival. One of the ingredients for gunpowder.
Dwight: These fellows came in when this was really a wilderness, they had no supplies from back east or other sources. They had to make their own gunpowder, make their own bullets. They would go into the caves and where the bats use a cave they leave guano on the floor, during the deterioration process of that guano it impregnates the sediments of the cave, the clays, the soils the sands and silts with nitrogen. And they could extract this material, process it and come up with saltpeter crystals which, combined with sulfur and charcoal produces gunpowder.
NARRATOR: The growth of communities brought on new needs and new uses were found for Missouri's caves. Their spring fed streams were used for mills, the cool temperature was used as cool storage. In St. Louis, caves where used as ice houses and as breweries. The German brewmaster Adam Lemp started his operation in a cave at the corner of Cherokee and 13th street in 1840. Another brewery nearby, the Bavarian Brewery, used caves for aging their product. Today, that brewery, Anheuser-Busch, is one of the worlds largest, and beneath it's foundations still lie the original storage caves. The turmoil of the Civil War, brought violence and chaos to the state, and Missouri's caves were no exception. With their stores of saltpeter for gunpowder, caves were a valuable commodity ......eagerly sought by both sides in the conflict. Quantrills Irregulars were said to have destroyed gunpowder mills in Meramec Caverns, giving rise to the rumor that Jesse James, one of Quantrills men, later used the cave as a hideout. In an era of bandits and bushwhackers, the darkness may have taken on a new significance. Then came the automobile and the electric light . Suddenly, caves transformed from utilitarian shelters to tourist attractions. Caves went commercial, and Missouri established it's reputation as the cave state.
Dwight: At this time, in Missouri history caves were commercialized. In many ways they modified the caves, they put in walkways, they put in platforms, they used the caves for dance halls, beer gardens and roller rinks, all kinds of social activities. Following World War II when we had better roads, better highways and better vehicles, they began to open caves for tourism. There's been no time since the beginning of this period that we haven't had at least two dozen show caves open to the public.
NARRATOR: But Missouri's cave resources don't stop with the commercial caves. There are more than 5000 known caves in the state, and more are being located every year. These underground sanctuaries provide a unique ecosystem for dozens of exotic creatures. They are valuable living laboratories.....a place to study our groundwater resources. And they have provided adventure and excitement to generations of explorers.

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