Bonner Day: Underground caverns are a hidden valley treasure

Bonner Day

“Once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men.”
– Saint-Exupery.

It is estimated that there are more than 4,000 underground caverns in Virginia. Some of the most spectacular ones exposed to the world are in the valley.

Interstate 81 connects many of them. Beginning in the East is Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Crystal Caverns in Strasburg, Shenandoah Caverns south of Mount Jackson, and Endless Caverns just south of New Market.

Just south of Shenandoah County is Grand Caverns, once called Weyer Caverns. And over the mountains is Luray Caverns, one of the most developed in the area, one that plays music on the underground formations.

It is a joy to enjoy the beauty of the valley, with its green fields and pastures, and the surrounding mountains with their forests. But to many the most colorful part of the valley is underground.

The many colors and the unusual rock formations throughout the valley were created over millions of years by water dripping though the different soils to form stalagmites and stalactites, towers and walls of fantastical shapes and colors.

And if we enjoy the beauty displayed by the lights and the manicured walkways, think of the first person who lowered himself down a sinkhole with nothing but a candle for light. He dropped his feet, searching for a foothold, until he found solid ground. He held up his candle and looked around carefully. After taking a deep breath, he probably tugged on the rope to get back up to safety.

Some of that same sense of danger is felt in today’s tours. The closeness, the dark corners and the cool temperature combine to heighten the tourist’s sense of anxiety. Though each of the underground caverns range seven miles or more, the public sections usually are limited to a mile, the distance tourists are willing to walk. The caverns’ tourists are led by guides. While there is no record of any being lost, a number have fainted.

The first caverns discovered in the area were Strasburg’s Crystal Caverns, located in the center of Hupp Hill, a Civil War fortification. They were found in 1750 but not opened to the public until 1930. Closed to the public since 2010, the cavern is of special interest for the many signatures left on the walls by Civil War soldiers.

Nearby in Front Royal is the Skyline Caverns, one of the last in the valley to be discovered, in 1937. Opened to the public in 1939, it was closed for World War II, then reopened in 1946.

Two of the caverns’ most famous visitors were Bing Crosby and Clint Eastwood. The famous singer’s visit was part of a Bing Crosby Day held in March 1949. The celebration featured a parade and a visit to the high school.

Shenandoah Caverns, almost in the center of Shenandoah County, has been opened to the public for 59 years. It has its own post office and the only elevator of the state’s caverns.

During World War II a railroad excursion was operated for tourists from the District of Columbia. It was stopped when gas rationing ended. Floats for presidential inaugural floats in Washington, D.C., are stored at the site and are available for viewing.

Endless Caverns, located west of New Market, was discovered in 1889, when a hunter chased a rabbit down a sinkhole. The cavern was readied for tours in the 1920s. After electric lights were installed in the 1930s, one of the larger rooms was used for dances. The cool temperatures underground, averaging 54 degrees, made dancers comfortable even for the most vigorous dances. Endless Caverns is open from April to November.

The valley’s caverns demonstrate man’s inventiveness. We are afraid when we first discover something new, then we ask how it can be used. And we end up with a multi-million dollar business based on curiosity and beauty, spiced with fear.

Bonner Day has lived in the valley for the past 14 years. He confesses to a healthy share of prejudices.