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Laurel Caverns History
THE HISTORY OF LAUREL CAVERNS
*Author’s note: I am indebted to my caver-historian friend, Paul Damon, whose excellent history book on the early years of Laurel Caverns provided me with much of the information on the cave's ownership prior to 1925.
At a time long before the first pyramids were build, a portion of cave passage closest to the edge of the hillside collapsed. At the bottom of the sink hole formed by this collapse lay the entrance to Laurel Caverns. The first humans to find that entrance were Native Americans. Over the years many arrowheads have been found around that opening.
No one knows when the first non-native Americans entered the cave, but the date was likely in the decade prior to 1776; by the summer of that year James Downard was quarrying the edge of the cave’s limestone bed about 2,000 feet south of the cave’s entrance.
James Downard’s deed did not include the cave’s entrance. The first official cave owner was Richard Freeman who acquired the 400 acres adjoining Downard by lot drawing from the Commonwealth in 1794. That same year a John Delaney purchased the Downard quarry property to turn it into a farm. In 1814, Delaney purchased the 36 acres immediately around the cave’s entrance from Freeman, thus expanding his farm to 114 acres and giving him ownership of the, even then, the well known cave.
The earliest known newspaper account of Laurel Caverns, according to historian Tom Metzgar, dates to 1798. In 1802 much local publicity was given to two Smithfield men who became lost in the cave for three days. When found, they were “locked in each others’ arms waiting for the end, almost dead.” The two men, named Crain and Simmons, survived, but the cave entrance was sealed shut for several years thereafter.
In 1816 the first recorded geologic survey of any kind in western Pennsylvania took place at the cave on the Delaney farm. John Paxton, a Philadelphia journalist, visited the cave with several of Uniontown’s more prominent citizens. He gave the cave its first name, calling it “Laurel Hill Cave.” By 1816 there was a trail to the cave entrance from what is now Fairchance
The Paxton article gives us tremendous insight into what it meant to explore the cave in his time. Beyond the “second room” (the dining room on modern maps) the cave is seen today exactly as it was by Paxton.
Paxton noted finding Crain’s name in the cave though he doesn’t seem to know of the mishap fourteen years earlier. He also observed “the sides of every place that had been previously visited were covered with names and marks made with coal.” Graffiti has evidently been around a long time.
In 1823 John Delaney died and his farm was abandoned, but his name was to remain with the cave for the next 140 years.
The name Laurel Hill Cave passed out of use after several years. For local people it was “Delaney’s Cave”. In 1836 the Delaney heirs sold the Delaney Cave farm initiating a fifteen year period when the property was owned by a variety of investors.
One such owner was “Judge” James Veech (1808-1879), author of the local history book, the Monongahela of Old. Another was Robert Flenniken (1802-1879). Flenniken served President Polk as Ambassador to Denmark and later served President Buchanan as Governor of the Utah Territory.
It was during this period that the first references to the upper maze of sand passages can be found. The entrance to what is now the guided tour area did not exist until about 1910, and in those days this area could only be entered through a difficult crawl passage.
THE HUMBERT ERA
In 1851, William Humbert purchased the Delaney farm property for $350. He and his heirs kept it for the next 75 years. William erected a cabin at the southern end of the property and farmed the land much like the Delaneys’ did. After William died in 1861, the farm was operated by his son Randolph. About 1890 the family moved to nearby Haydentown and the farm was abandoned as a home site. Seventy-five years were to pass before another permanent home was built on the property.
During the Humbert era Delaney’s Cave became even more well known. The 1850’s,60’s and 70’s saw the growth along the nearby National Pike (U.S. Route 40) of several resorts. Sebastian Rush, operator of the Fayette Springs Hotel, featured visits to the cave as a major part of his summer vacation package. His ads prominently promoted the cave and greatly added to its fame.
Another resort, the Summit House, also operated regular excursions to the cave. As we shall see later, the successor to the Summit House, the Mount Summit Inn, played an important role in the ownership of Laurel Caverns.
By 1926 the Humbert heirs held the old Delaney Cave farm tract in three sections. Mary McDowell, granddaughter of William, decided to sell her northern third and her aunt, Virginia Humbert Smith, chose to sell the middle third which she held. Both pieces of property were rich with the limestone that Downard first worked to remove over 150 years before. Had a limestone company purchased the cave at that time, Laurel Caverns would not exist today. But that was not to be.
THE CALE ERA
Roy Cale, District Manager of A&P Food Stores in Southwestern Pennsylvania and a resident of Uniontown, heard the cave was up for sale by Mrs. McDowell . He alerted his cousin, Norman Cale, of the sale and the two formed a partnership to preserve the cave. Both men had been born and raised in Bruceton Mills, WV, a small community about thirteen miles from the famous cave. Roy had explored the cave many times, but Norman, owner of a small accounting firm, had never been in it. At first Roy’s enthusiasm to own and preserve a piece of land five miles from the nearest paved road didn’t make much financial sense to Norman, But it was love at first sight when Norman saw the cave itself.
Norman and Roy were not the only ones the cave had that affect upon. Ralph “Buss” Bossart, a Penn State graduate in Civil Engineering, had been visiting the cave since 1921, and when he found himself unemployed due to the Depression, decided to “move” to the cave in 1933. Buzz spent the entire summer that surveying and mapping the cave. He also kept count of cave visitation (noting 1,720 visitors that summer). When Buzz finished his map he made an interesting discovery. The Cales did not own the entire cave; the huge size of the cave meant that the Cales needed to purchase much more land than the 85 acres they held. Fortunately, Norman and Roy had brought in as partners, Roy’s half-brother, Charles, and another A&P executive, Wayne Jones of Monongahela.
This partnership began buying up hundreds of acres until the cave property stood at 1030 acres. For the first time the entire cave was on one deed. The year was 1936, a fateful year for the property.
In 1936 the DC-2 was the “jumbo jet” of its day. On April 8 of that year, while on a flight from Newark to Pittsburgh, one of the worst civilian plane crashes of that decade took place only a few hundred yards from the cave’s entrance. A Trans-Western DC-2, dubbed "Sunracer" crashed, killing thirteen people. Initially surviving were the stewardess (Nellie Granger), the wife of the Mayor of Newark, and one other passenger. The latter two died days later from the crash. Nellie Granger's long walk in search of help made her nationally famous. The crash now has two monuments. One at the crash site and one at Valley Forge Military Academy honoring several students killed in the crash. It is arguable the tradegy represents the first major crash of a modern all metal passenger plane in Pennsylvania.
By 1950, Norman and his wife, Helen, were the sole owners of the cave tract, since Roy had died in 1942 and Charles and Wayne had wished to sell their interest. In 1954, Norman and Helen sold 600 acres to the Borough of Fairchance to protect their reservoir’s watershed. The remaining 430 acres has stayed intact to this day as the grounds for the Laurel Caverns’ property.
The decision to develop the cave for guided tours had been discussed many times over the years. An article in the Uniontown paper dated 1886, suggested as much. However, my grandfather Norman’s final decision to proceed came in the summer of 1961. He was 68 years old, looking to spend the next three years opening a business at an age when many people are retired. My father, a Methodist minister, who had always been my grandfather’s helper at the cave, was too involved with his church work in Southern West Virginia to assist, so it fell to me to join my grandfather in the development. The work began in May of 1962. Only the small catacomb passages were developed for the guided tour. The large lower rooms were deemed too far into the mountain for most people to walk.
There were no electric or phone lines at the cave’s entrance in 1962, so power was supplied by a generator. The basic tour plan and lighting design had been worked out by Buzz Bossart, who now spent his weekends at the cave along with other ‘old-timers’, Tony Yuliano, Dick Stone, John Devlin and Frank Mielcarek. To remove the sand from some of the sand-filled catacombs, contractors, Louis Rose of Dunbar and Paul Gaskill of Uniontown, provided a rail system in the cave that ran from the old main entrance to the Christmas Tree Grotto. Gaskill’s company handled all of the excavation and blasting during development. The original natural entrance was preserved untouched and excavation work was only done at the two man-made entrances to the sand cave.
I had found the 1816 Paxton article while researching the cave’s history and suggested a return to the cave’s original name of Laurel, calling it Laurel Caverns. My grandfather at first felt the name Delaney was too well known. However, when Buzz concurred with me, he agreed and the name was changed back to an approximation of its 1816 name. Utilities came to the property in 1963, and the work was completed in time to open on July 1, 1964, with me taking the first guided tour.
My grandfather operated the cave as a tour cave that summer. On October 8th, he surprised his entire family by announcing the sale of the caverns’ property to two attorneys from Greensburg, Emmett C. Boyle, Jr. and Ned J. Nakles. They were both men of great character and I learned much from them. I stayed with caverns as general manager. The job offered me an excellent way to pay for college. My assistant manager was Charles Bricker of Fairchance.
Boyle and Nakles shared the preservationist sentiments of my grandfather and did nothing to disturb the 430 acres of the property. Even when a new visitors’ center was built in 1969, it was built so as not to violate the ambiance of the old main entrance. The N. E. Cale Visitors’ Center, as it was later named, was designed to resemble a state lodge and not a commercial building.
The preservationist theme of the cave required that it tie up large amounts of money with little or no return. With only four months of income and twelve months of bills, running Laurel Caverns was something one did for the love of the property, not for money. In 1972, Donald Shoemaker, owner of the Mount Summit Inn Resort, agreed to purchase the cave from Boyle and Nakles and graciously provided the funding to permit me to buy a minor interest in the Caverns. Once again, with Don Shoemaker in charge, the property remained fortunate to have as an owner someone who would not subdivide it into lots or attempt to quarry its valuable limestone. During the second half of the twentieth century the old "Great Porch" hotels were being replaced by the modern chain hotels. Yet, against this economic pressure, Don and his wife Eunice spent those years working to preserve the historic "Summit Hotel," built in 1907. They succeeded and the continuing task has now been taken up by their daughter Karen and her family.
In 1977, Lillian M. Gangwere of Wheeling, WV and I were married. We had met when Lillian brought her 8th grade class on a field trip to Laurel Caverns. That same summer we designed an all metric home and began to build it on the property. The house was the first in the United States built to the metric system.
In 1983 my grandfather , Norman, passed away on his 90th birthday, and his ashes were interred near the cave entrance. Later my grandmother’s ashes were placed there also. Donald Shoemaker, always my best friend, sold his interest in the Caverns to Lillian and me in 1986, making us the sole owners of the Caverns. In 1989, the original service building, which had been used for storage for several years, was revamped as a picnic shelter.
In 1993, a rappelling cliff (The Ed Coll Cliff) was built in the caverns’ upper developed area. Later a climbing wall was added and the scout programs expanded accordingly. Geology merit badge programs and caving had been popular for many years but rappelling and climbing added a new dimension. Classrooms have been added to accommodate groups for the programs. In 2004 another cliff, (The Tyler Grimm Cliff and climbing wall was added in the cave to accommodate the demand for these programs. None of these changes has altered the natural environment of the Caverns’ property. We are still committed to preserving this mountainside and its underground majesty for future generations.
With the doctrine of inclusion, we were pleased to welcome many more physically challenged children with school field trips. However our natural cave could not accommodate them. So, I designed and built the largest simulated cave in the world, one that could be toured in a wheelchair. To pay for its very substantial cost the floor was made to be used as a miniature golf course. Work began in 1996 and it was opened in 1999 under the name Kavernputt.