Jerry Summers: Russell Cave National Monument

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

A short drive from Chattanooga along I-24 W to exit 72 (South Pittsburg) towards Bridgeport, Alabama leads a traveler to Russell Cave National Monument on the left.

It is an archeological site with one of the most complete records of prehistoric culture of a group of people in the Southeast.

The monument’s location in northeastern Alabama is closest to the former railroad town of Bridgeport.

The National Geographical Society donated 310 acres to the American people which encompasses the area of the cave.  The Society had previously purchased the site in 1956 from Oscar Ridley.

With said donation the monument is now administered and maintained by the National Park Service.

The original owner of the property was Major James Dorian who was the brother-in-law of Colonel Thomas Russell who was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War from North Carolina and for whom the cave is named.

Starting in 1953, the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Archaeological Society first recognized Russell Cave as an archaeological site.

The National Geographical Society, as well as the Smithsonian Institute, conducted additional excavations along with the National Park Service.

After the property had been donated to the United States government in 1961, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed Russell Cave a National Monument on May 11 of that year.

The excavation work is ongoing and to date the teams have dug down more than 30 feet into the cave floor.

Using carbon-14 testing to determine the ages of ancient campfire residue found, the teams have been able to surmise the age of the artifacts as being about 6500 years ago.  However the ages of human remains also found suggest a much older date of occupation of possibly 10,000 years.

The cave is believed to have primarily been used as a seasonal winter shelter based on the ability of the settlers to rely on the surrounding forest to grow produce and to hunt for game and fish in surrounding water sources of the Tennessee River.

Russell Cave is the third-longest mapped cave in the State of Alabama and is ranked 90th on the United States Long Cave list and 314 on the World Long Cave List.

Russell Cave continues to be an extremely important archaeological research site but has also become a popular tourist destination.

The visitor center, which was dedicated in 1967, contains museum exhibits and documentary films about the lifestyles of prehistoric peoples. It was named after Gilbert H. Grosvenor who was the editor of the National Geographic Society Magazine from 1903 to 1954 and president of the National Geographical Society from 1920-1954.

Recreational caving is no longer available but tours led by Park Rangers are free and there are two walking trails.

Russell Cave is one of the most extensive cave systems in Alabama with more than seven miles of mapped passageways.  It also contains five separate entrances into the cave. 

A rare specimen of a scorpion that has not been found anywhere else in the world has been found in the cave and is protected.

Each year during the first weekend in May the Russell Cave National Monument has hosted a Native American Festival. The event includes Indian performances and the reenactment of a Cherokee encampment is conducted. A variety of demonstrations are held in wood carving, and pottery hand building.

Easily located at 3729 County Road 98 outside Bridgeport, the cave site is open year around and admission is free to enter the park or tour the cave.

A call to the monument office at (256)-495-2672 will connect you with courteous staff members who can provide you with up-to-date information about the site.

If you want to make it an all day trip you can also continue up 98 until you see a sign on the right that will direct you to the abandoned railroad depot in the former mining town of Orme, Tennessee that is in Marion County, Tennessee.

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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  

Russell Cave
Russell Cave

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