Drawing visitors for more than 130 years, Luray is now a complete destination attraction with new museums, activities, lodging
by Karen Rubin
For more than 130 years, the Luray Caverns in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, has lured and dazzled people from all over the country and all over the world, drawn by the marvel, the wonder, the works of art fashioned by Mother Nature herself, and the sheer thrill and mystery of being submerged in an underground world so alien to what we experience.
I remember coming years and years ago, and when I returned just recently, it was even more thrilling – I appreciated and delighted in the marvel all the more.
View slideshow: Luray Caverns is natural wonder, thrills with beauty and mystery
And if the experience is that jaw dropping for adults, you can imagine the utter sense of being transported to some fantastical Wonderland that kids must feel.
But in the many years since I had last visited, Luray Caverns has turned into a full destination with a variety of attractions, all superb in quality and authentic in their own way – the natural wonder of the caverns (among the best in the world) is complimented by an extraordinarily fine Car and Carriage Caravan Museum -one of the best collections in the country – and a Luray Valley Museum, with artifacts going back to colonial times (and a 1535 Bible, one of the first to be printed in German), that the Smithsonian Museum would salivate over. Added to this are the amusing attractions that round out a veritable smorgasbord of activities – the Garden Maze, the Ropes Course and even a Singing Tower – making for a day or more of complete enrichment of mind and body. (Your ticket to the caverns also admits you to the Car and Carriage Museum and to the Luray Valley Museum.)
In its way, Luray Caverns has the dramatic appeal of a theme park – with a multitude of blockbuster attractions in one compact space – and yet, the remarkable thing is that this is an attraction is about authenticity, the interactivity and the unique experience of “being there”, all set in one of the most scenic and interesting places in the country, the Shenandoah Valley.
Luray Caverns is set in the midst of a territory that has been central in American history from Indian days, through Colonial times and the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War. It is astonishing to realize that Luray Caverns is but 89 miles from Washington DC, a short drive to Shenandoah Valley and the Skyline Drive, 14 miles down the mountain road to the New Market Civil War Battlefield, and a short distance to Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent Monticello.
Touring Luray Caverns
As I waited on line for my time-stamped tour, I saw visitors who had come from all the country and all over the world.
It has been this way since the caverns – designated a United States Registered natural landmark in 1974 – were discovered in most dramatic fashion.
“Cold air rushing out of a limestone sinkhole atop a big hill west of Luray, Virginia, blew out a candle held by Andrew Campbell, the town tinsmith, on the morning of August 13, 1878.” So begins what has become the legend of Luray Caverns. Campbell, three other men, and his 13-year-old nephew, Quint, were exploring the area, looking for a cave. The opening where the blast of air came was no bigger than a quarter, “but with the help of local photographer Benton Stebbins, the men dug away loose rocks for four hours before, candle in hand, Campbell and Quint slid down a rope into the cave. They could scarcely believe what they saw. The party had discovered the largest series of caverns in the East, an eerie world of stalactites and stalagmites seen by the light of a candle.”
At the time of the discovery, Sam Buracker of Luray owned the land on which the cavern entrance was found. Because of uncollected debts, a court-ordered auction of all his land was held on September 14, 1878. Andrew Campbell, William Campbell, and Benton Stebbins purchased the cave tract, keeping their discovery secret until after the sale.
The new owners immediately began to develop the caverns as a tourist attraction.
The first Grand Illumination took place on November 6, 1878. Two hundred people from all over the county and as far as Arlington, Virginia, came A thousand candles illuminated the antechamber making it nearly as bright as day.
A second Illumination, on December 27, 1878 drew 600 people who paid $1 per adult and 50 cents per child. A band was hired and people paid 25 cents more to dance on the newly constructed floor in the Ball Room area of Giant’s Hall.
Shortly after its discovery, the Smithsonian Institution sent a delegation of nine scientists to examine the caverns, who reported in July 1880, “… it is safe to say that there is probably no other cave in the world more completely and profusely decorated with stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation than that of Luray.”
The New York Herald dubbed Luray Caverns the “discovery of the century.”
Tallow candles were used to light the caverns until September, 1881, when 13 arc lights were installed – the first instance on record in which a cave had been lighted by electricity. The lighting system was powered by an engine driven generator near the train station in Luray at the former Luray Inn. The current had to travel a circuit of 7 miles, at the time, the world’s longest single engine transmission of electrical current. In 1921, a new lighting system was installed throughout the entire caverns by local electricians and company maintenance workers. Under the supervision of the General Electric Company in 1936, the company rewired and re-illuminated the caverns with the most modern type of lighting. This system was used until 1983 when a Cumberland Tennessee company installed an indirect lighting system using more durable, up-to-date equipment. This system is still in use today.
In the early days, visitors walked on wood planks; In the early 1950′s, a modern system of brick and concrete walkways and ramps was constructed throughout the tour route.
Today, we walk down a concrete staircase, into a cavernous hall, lit with a warm, golden-orange light that shows the formations to great effect. You realize that without the artificial light, we would be plunged into absolute darkness. Instead, we find ourselves in a fairyland of stone.
During the course of our one-hour tour, we will cover 1 1/4 mile.
The first formation we see is also the first formation that Campbell saw, a large column which they named Washington Column for the first President.
The caverns are “solutional” – meaning that they were formed when water mixed with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating a mild carbonic acid in the soil; the solution seeps through the ground, hollowing out the bedrock, creating the cavern rooms. By slowly eroding the weaker minerals, the harder minerals are left behind, forming the walls and ceilings.
Based on how long this process takes, scientists estimate the caverns to be 450 million years old.
The formations – the stalagmites that grow upwardly form the floor and the stalactites which hang from the ceiling – are imaginatively named, adding to the fantasy.
Fish Market: to the right of a natural bridge, is a row of short curved formations of flowstone which reminded the early explorers of an old-fashioned fish market. Flowstone occurs when water flows down a wall or over a cave floor, depositing layers of mineral-rich water. It takes 300 years to grow one cubic inch.
Dream Lake is aptly named – it looks magical, like a small sea of underwater stalagmites but turns out to be a perfect mirror reflection of the ceiling. Dream Lake is the largest body of water in Luray Caverns – the deepest part is 18-20 inches. This section is my favorite in the Caverns.
The path makes a figure-eight, and we come upon Pluto’s Ghost, which is right in the center of the figure eight, so we will be seeing it again.
But I’ve lingered too long taking pictures and I find my group has gone ahead and here where the trail goes up or down, I don’t know which way to go. As I ponder, a section has gone dark as I realize the lights are on a timer. This gives me a momentary sense of panic that I will be plunged into dark, but I soon hear another tour group coming along, and I go to link up with them, much more careful this time not to linger.
We look over a railing to a section called Skeleton Gorge, named because human skeletal remains were found here, most likely washed into the cave rather than buried here. Researchers established they were 700-year old bones of a Native American female, probably in her teens (the bones are now in the Smithsonian)
We get a second view of Pluto’s Ghost and just next to you is another column that seems to mimic what you see below: Prosperino Column, named for the Roman goddess of the Underworld – the columns were formed when the stalactites from above met the stalagmites from below
Titania’s Veil, in the oldest part of the cave where the rooms are larger and the formations are less active but more massive, is one of the most spectacular formations. Titantia’s Veil, named after a character in Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s Dream, resembles a stone waterfall, especially when wet.
Giant Redwood and Overlook is the largest and oldest formation in the caverns, estimated to be about 7 million years old.
Saracen’s Tent is the best example of “drapes” in the caverns, which National Geographic has said are among the best in the world.
We come upon a fallen stalactite, which, based on how long it takes to grow to fuse to surrounding formations (120 years to grow an inch), is estimated to have been lying here for 7000 years.
We come to Giant’s Hall in the deepest part of the caverns, 164 feet down. This is the room with the largest airspace and the tallest formation of the caverns: Double Column, stretching 47 feet to the ceiling, is one of the best examples of stalactite and stalagmite. The parts of the Double column don’t exactly meet but are joined side by side, forming a column.
A massive, open room is called the Cathedral but was once known as the Ball Room because of dances that were held here, complete with band, hoop skirts, dress pants and a plank floor. Later it was called the Cathedral because of the spiritual nature of the chamber. It’s one of the most decorated chambers, but its biggest claim to fame is the Great Stalacpipe Organ – the largest musical instrument in the world. When you press down on a key on the console, it sends a signal to a plunger, which gently taps a stalactite, creating the musical tone. the stalactites of different sizes create different notes – they are spread out over 3.5 acres in the cavern. It is no wonder why this room is used for weddings.
Weddings became commonplace here even before the 1900′s Ceremonies in this unique subterranean environment generated widespread publicity in the decades of the 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. Even though weddings have been held in various chambers within the caverns, since 1957 most have taken place in the Cathedral accompanied by music from the Great Stalacpipe Organ. More than 450 weddings have been performed in Luray Caverns.
Another enchanting area is the Wishing Well – in a place with very little differences in color, here you come upon a pool of eerily green water. The green color of the rocks and well comes from the copper of thousands of pennies that are thrown in – by the end of the year, the mound is 2-3 feet high.
At Morrison’s Hall, under a low brick wall, back through the stalactites is a hidden shaft leading to the surface. In 1901, Colonel T.C. Northcott, who leased Luray Caverns, built a sanitarium, “Limair”, by installing a shaft into a cavern chamber which was connected to the house above, making it the first air-conditioned home in America. The shaft, five feet in diameter, was sunk into a nearby chamber and an 42 inch fan was installed. Powered by a five horsepower electric motor, this fan changed the entire air of the house every four minutes. The cool, naturally purified underground air filled every room. The bacteria-free air, ideal for those with respiratory illnesses, was filtered through limestone which removed dust and pollen. On the hottest day in summer, the interior of the house is always a cool and comfortable 70 degrees.
The lighting is wonderful – not enough to make the rock formations artificial, but enough to show the texture and dimension.
Even with the lighting (and flash is useless), photos never properly convey the awesome magnificence of caverns – you need to see the three dimensional expanse, the context, the textures the shapes, the scope, just how big the cavern is, or how deep, or this sense of almost falling as you walk deeper, or that damp chill that wafts, or that moment as you lag behind the group to shoot photos and the lights go off in a section, and you realize that the lights are on timers and you better shuffle along and catch up. Caverns have to be experienced – you simply can’t take home because what you see is only part of it.
Exiting the caverns, you come into a rather excellent gift shop – the items are well made, interesting and reasonably priced.
You come out of the caverns – back to the “world” – and after stopping at the lemonade stand or to buy an ice cream or fudge, you go next to the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum.
Luray Caverns is now owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Graves family and there is a sense of being hosted personally – there is so much here that reflects the family’s personal interest.
You’ve already seen one of the wonders of the world, and there is still so much to see.
Luray Caverns, 970 U.S. Hwy. 211 West, Luray, VA 22835, 540-743-6551, www.luraycaverns.com.
Known as a Thrilling Natural Wonder, Luray Caverns Also Offers Dazzling Museum Collections
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