Jerry Summers: Lookout Mountain's Other Well-Known Cave

Sunday, August 9, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Contrary to some popular belief, Ruby Falls was not the first cave to be discovered on Lookout Mountain, but it was Lookout Mountain Cave located at the foot of Lookout Mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River.  Until the 20th Century, it had a natural opening that its sister cave did not have.  The location of Lookout Mountain Cave had been accessible to the outside and to visitors and animals for hundreds of years.  The cave had been used as a campsite for American Indians as well as a hideout for outlaws and moonshiners.

            Lookout Mountain is honeycombed with caverns that have always fascinated spelunkers over the years back to the days of the Brainerd Missionaries.  Lookout Mountain Cave has its entrance on the mountain overlooking Moccasin Bend and is visible at the right-of-way boundaries of the Railway and Interstate 24 although it has been sealed inside.  Around 1905 to 1908, the Southern Railway built a double-tracked tunnel through Lookout Cave, shrinking the entrance to the old cave.  To gain access to the cave a 400-foot shaft was excavated in 1928 and 1929.  At this time Ruby Falls was discovered at the 260-foot level.

            Initially both caves were shown as a tourist attraction, but extensive deposits of soot from the coal-driven engines flooded the railroad tunnel in Lookout Cave so it was closed to tourists in 1935.  With the development of diesel engines this problem no longer exists and perhaps some thought in the future will be given to re-opening this treasure trove of archaeological artifacts and other historical findings.  Stories of the past still exist among persons interested in searching for proof of earlier dwellers. There have been reports of travelers going deep into the cave as far as 12 miles without reaching the end. 

            Lookout Mountain Cave was also used as a Civil War hospital and visitors left what is now called graffiti and there allegedly is a signature of Andrew Jackson. However, research has not indicated that Jackson visited the cave.  Indiana native Leo Lambert first derived the idea to develop the cave as a tourist attraction with financial backing from some Hoosier friends.  When his group discovered Ruby Falls with its 100-foot plunge within the mountain he named it after his wife, Ruby.

            Unfortunately, Lambert’s successful development of the twin locations coincided with the national Depression. His company lost money and finally went into receivership.  In 1932, an individual by the name of Claude Brown bought Ruby Falls for $25,000.

Up until 2005, Ruby Falls management allowed scientists and researchers to take the elevator that had been installed to take tourists to the 260-foot level and then was also used to go down to the 400-foot level to explore the Lookout Mountain Cave.  They discovered new passageways that resulted in finding prehistoric bones dating back to the last Ice Age.  Many old names and dates of historic interest and importance can be found in Lookout Mountain Cave.  Unfortunately, in 2005, State of Tennessee elevator inspectors “required the Ruby Falls operators to seal the elevator shift below Ruby Falls.”  As a result, the cave is now totally inaccessible!  Prior to the Lookout Cave being closed to tourists in 1935, rock formations were found and named as Mystic Cove, Solomon’s Temple, Devil’s Seat, the Oriental Palace, and the Winding Serpentine Trail.  Several miles of the lower cave had been explored and equipped with wooden steps and illuminated light bulbs strung along the passages.   

            Other rumors and legends include talk about Confederate soldiers going into a cave at Chattanooga and coming out at Noccalula Falls at Gadsden in northeast Alabama, which is now a highly popular park.  One of the unusual findings in Lookout Mountain Cave are 13 square stone boxes that sit on the cave floor.  They are made by natural formations and the walls keep the secret as to who made the boxes and for what reason.  The cave also has a Ku Klux Klan history and was used by the Masonic Orders as a meeting place by both.  One of the rumors about the stone boxes is that they are ballot voting boxes.

            In 1992, the resident cave expert at Ruby Falls made a long trek deep within Lookout Mountain Cave.  On his journey he found three jaguar skeletons in various positions.  An earlier expedition in 1982 unearthed bones from many different varieties of animals and were taken to the Louisville Museum of Natural History for identification.

            Both Ruby Falls and the larger Lookout Mountain Caverns complex have been designated a National Historic Landmark.  A paperback book by author Larry E. Matthews (2007), available on Amazon and titled Caves of Chattanooga, in 192 pages tells how the caves were mined for saltpeter to be used in making gunpowder during both the War and the Civil War.

            One can only wonder what can be found if Lookout Mountain Cave should be re-opened in the future.  A whole new world to attract tourists and also satisfy the curiosity of amateur and professional cave explorers could be developed?

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

 

           

           

Lookout Mountain Cave entrance
Lookout Mountain Cave entrance

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