1902 Encyclopedia > Luray Cavern

Luray Cavern

LURAY CAVERN, in Page county, Virginia, United States, 39° 35' N. lat. and 78° 17' W. long., is 1 mile west of the village of Luray, on the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. The valley, here 10 miles wide, extends from the Blue Ridge to the Massanutton mountain, and displays remarkably fine scenery. These ridges lie in vast folds and wrinkles ; and elevations in the valley are often found to be pierced by erosion. Cave Hill, 300 feet above the water-level, had long been an object of local interest on account of its pits and oval hollows, or sink-holes, through one of which, August 13, 1878, Mr Andrew J. Campbell and others entered, thus discovering the extensive and beautiful cavern now described.

Geologically considered, the Luray cavern does not date beyond the Tertiary period, though carved from the Silurian limestone. At some period long subsequent to its original excavation, and after many large stalactites had grown, it was completely filled with glacial mud charged with acid, whereby the dripstone was eroded into singularly grotesque shapes. After the mud had been mostly removed by flowing water, these eroded forms remained amid the new growths. To this contrast may be ascribed some of the most striking scenes in the cave. The many and extraordinary monuments of aqueous energy include massive columns wrenched from their place in the ceiling and prostrate on the floor ; the hollow column 40 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, standing erect, but pierced by a tubular passage from top to bottom ; the leaning column, nearly as large, undermined and tilting like the campanile of Pisa ; the organ, a cluster of stalactites dropped points downward and standing thus iu the room known as the cathedral ; besides a vast bed of disintegrated carbonates left by the whirling flood in its retreat through the great space called the Elfin Ramble.

The stalactitic display exceeds that of any other cavern known, and there is hardly a square yard on the walls or ceiling that is not thus ornamented. The old material is yellow, brown, or red ; and its wavy surface often shows layers like the gnarled grain of costly woods. The new stalactites growing from the old, and made of hard carbonates that had already once been used, are usually white as snow, though often pink, blue, or amber-coloured. The size attained by single specimens is surprising. The Empress Column is a stalagmite 35 feet high, rose-coloured, and elaborately draped. The double column, named from Professors Henry and Baird, is made of two fluted pillars side by side, the one 25 and the other 60 feet high, a mass of snowy alabaster. Several stalactites in the Giant Hall exceed 50 feet in length. The smaller pendents are in numerable ; in the canopy above the Imperial Spring it is estimated that 40,000 are visible at once.

The " cascades " pointed out are wonderful formations like foaming cataracts caught in mid-air and transformed into milk-white or amber alabaster. The Chalcedony Cascade displays a variety of colours. Brand's Cascade, which is the finest of all, being 40 feet high and 30 feet wide, is unsullied and wax-like white, each ripple and braided rill seeming to have been polished.

The Swords of the Titans are monstrous blades, eight in number, 50 feet long, 3 to 8 feet wide, hollow, 1 to 2 feet thick, but drawn down to an extremely thin edge, and filling the cavern with tones like tolling bells when struck heavily by the hand. Their origin and also that of certain so-called scarfs and blankets exhibited is from carbonates deposited by water trickling down a sloping and corrugated LURAY-CAVERN surface. Sixteen of these alabaster scarfs hang side by side in Hovey's Balcony, three white and flue as crape shawls, thirteen striated like agate with every shade of brown, and all perfectly translucent. Down the edge of each a tiny rill glistens like silver, and this is the ever-plying shuttle that weaves the fairy fabric.

Streams and true springs are absent, but there are hundreds of basins, varying from 1 to 50 feet in diameter, and from 6 inches to 15 feet in depth. The water in thorn is exquisitely pure, except as it is impregnated by the carbonate of lime, which often forms concretions, called, according to their size, pearls, eggs, and snowballs. A large one is known as the cannon ball. On fracture these spherical growths are found to be radiated in structure.

Calcite crystals, drusy, feathery, or fern-like, line the sides and bottom of every water-filled cavity, and indeed constitute the substance of which they are made. Variations of level at different periods are marked by rings, ridges, and ruffled margins. These are strongly marked about Broaddus Lake, and the curved ramparts of the Castles on the Rhine. Here also are polished stalagmites, a rich buff slashed with white, and others, like huge mushrooms, with a velvety coat of red, purple, or olive-tinted crystals. In some of the smaller basins it sometimes happens that when the excess of carbonic acid escapes rapidly there is formed, besides the crystal bed below, a film above, shot like a sheet of ice across the surface. One pool 12 feet wide is thus covered so as to show but a third of its surface. The quantity of water in the cavern varies greatly at different seasons. Hence some stalactites have their tips under water long enough to allow tassels of crystals to grow on them, which, in a drier season, are again coated over with stalactitic matter ; and thus singular distortions are occasioned. Contiguous stalactites are often iuwrapped thus till they assume an almost globular form, through which, by making a section, the primary tubes appear. Twig-like projections, lateral outgrowths, to which the term helictite has been applied, are met with in certain portions of the cave, and are interesting by their strange and uncouth contortions. Their presence is partly due to the existence of a diminutive fungus peculiar to the locality, and designated from its habitat Mucor stalactitis. The Toy-Shop is an amusing collection of these freaks of nature.

The dimensions of the various chambers included in Luray Cavern cannot easily be stated, on account of the great irregularity of their outlines. Their size may be seen from the diagram on p. 67. But it should be understood that there are several tiers of galleries, and the vertical depth from the highest to the lowest is 260 feet. The tract of 100 acres owned by the Luray Cave Company covers all possible modes of entrance ; and the explored area is much less than that.

The waters of this cavern appear to be entirely destitute of life ; and the existing fauna is quite meagre, comprising only a few bats, rats, mice, spiders, flies, and small centipedes. When the cave was first entered, the floor was covered with thousands of tracks of raccoons, wolves, and bears, - most of them probably made long ago, as impressions made in the tenacious clay that composes most of the cavern floor would remain unchanged for centuries. Layers of excrementitious matter appear, and also many small bones, along with a few large ones, all of existing species. The traces of human occupation as yet discovered are pieces of charcoal, flints, moccasin tracks, and a single skeleton imbedded in stalagmite in one of the chasms, estimated to have lain where found fornot morethan fivehundred years, judging from the present rate of stalagmitic growth.

The temperature is uniformly 54° Fahr., coinciding with that of the Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. The air is very pure, and the avenues are not uncomfortably damp.

The portions open to the public are now lighted by electric lamps. The registered number of visiters in 1881 was 12,000. (H. c.

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