Jerry Summers: Mystery Falls - The Non-Tourist Attraction

Thursday, November 25, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The history of Lookout Cave, Ruby Falls, Nickajack Cave, and even the lesser-known Raccoon Mountain Caverns, have all received some historical publicity as reasons for tourists to attend Hamilton or Marion Counties in Tennessee.

            The efforts of cave explorer Leo Lambert to develop the above sites have all been reported in previous articles in this column on August 9, 2020, December 25, 2020, January 9, 2021 and March 17, 2021.

            The discovery of another potential location on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, was discovered downhill from the Ruby Falls Castle just below Old Wauhatchie Pike on November 15, 1886 according to a historical sign located on the property which includes three well worn photographs of Jim Glasscock, Ed Chapin and Garnet Carter at the location.

            The language on said marker is as follows:

Nearby is an underground waterfall, which plunges down a drop almost as deep as a football field is long.  Once called Evylin Falls, it is currently known as Mystery Falls because of the uncertainty about the origin of the water that pours across the falls.  It was discovered November 15, 1885 by William Walker Anderson, Jr. when he was on a boat in the Tennessee River and spotted a stream of water coming out of an opening in the mountain.  Anderson, a son-in-law to ironmaster Robert Cravens, helped form a company that drilled shafts down to the falls.  Later, the opening he first spotted was sealed and a new passageway to the falls was blasted under Old Wauhatchie Pike.  Then a small dam was built in the cave near the top of the falls and the water was pumped out.

The City Water Company began obtaining water from Mystery Falls in 1887 after citizens of St. Elmo quickly agreed to be some customers.  Water service to the Chattanooga suburb continued until 1911, when the area was incorporated into the city system.  The pipe to St. Elmo and some of the water company valves are still in place just below the road toward the cave. 

A corporation was formed in 1947 to develop Mystery Falls as a tourist attraction.  Although the cave was never opened for public visitation, spelunkers continued to visit the underground wonder by descending 286 feet on ropes.  At the bottom of the descent is a gigantic room with a 321 foot ceiling.  A passageway extends from the room about 300 feet, and the portion of the waterfall has over 3,000 feet of passageways.  In 1992, the cave opening was permanently sealed to prevent accidents.

Numerous references present a much more complicated and interesting past.

            It was reported that in 1959 one death occurred in August when an individual was being lowered into the pit and the rope broke. There was initially an entry at the top, but this was sealed off after a local youth, Jimmy Shadden, fell in. It was afterwards called Shadden's Hole.

            Another account states that its existence as a water source for residents of St. Elmo ended in 1911 when the liquid was declared unsafe to drink because of high mineral content.

            Despite claims of the falls and cave being sealed off an interesting article on August 6, 2013 allegedly shows a group of rope climbers descending into a waterfall pit that washed out into the Tennessee River below.

            One theory has been that the Ruby Falls and Mystery Falls streams probably come together downstream.  A review of old trip reports by one individual combined with the insertion of dye into the water produced trace data that indicated that Lookout Mountain Cave, Ruby Falls and Mystery Falls were part of one large water system emptying into the Tennessee River via an entity known as Anderson Spring.

            According to one e-mail source, in 2016 the owners of the property were the E. Y. Chapin family, owners of Ruby Falls and a provision was contained in a legal trust that required that the property be sold after E.Y. Chapin, III died unexpectedly on December 14, 2014, after an interesting and fascinated life at the age of 91.

            In April 2016, an online auction was held by Potts Brothers Auction Company and the property was bought back by the Chapin family for the sum of $225,000 after the bid was raised by another Chapin family member from $10,000. 

           One caver expressed an opinion during the auction that Mystery Falls “was a much nicer and more spectacular cave” (than its sister abyss).

            Several You Tube videos exist of the “hidden wonder” including an 8 minute 28 second video made on January 2, 2016, titled “Andy’s Journey Mystery Falls” that shows the location and blocked off entrance to this location and other historical venues on Lookout Mountain.  Other videos are available for viewing at

(1). www.youtube.com/watch?v=55Y99KLPp3g

            (2). www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNZS0GsFs4A

(3). www.youtube.com/watch?v=US91IzrzDx4

 (4) www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Rv--9wv20g

            An interesting discovery of another relatively unknown secret of the Lookout Mountain and Hamilton County, Tennessee!

However, the mystery and history of Mystery Falls and Cave remains to this day.

* * *

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)


Cavers descend Mystery Falls
Cavers descend Mystery Falls

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