Oregon Caves
Historic Structures Report

Site and Building History

Developmental History — Pre-Oregon Caves Company

The Oregon Caves have served as a popular attraction in southern Oregon since the 1870s. The first recorded cave entry was in 1874, when Elijah Davidson discovered the caves on a hunting trip. There are differing accounts of the discovery, but mostly in the finer details of the discovery. In the fall of 1874, Davidson had just killed a deer when his dog Bruno picked up a scent. Davidson instructed Bruno to follow the scent, and the dog raced up the hill and disappeared into a dark hole in the side of the mountain. Davidson heard the sounds of a fight within the cave, and in order to save his dog he entered the cave. He used matches to light his way initially, but soon ran out of light. He followed the stream out of the cave, and shortly thereafter his dog emerged from the cave.

main entrance
Main entrance to the Oregon Caves.

Davidson returned to the cave with the deer carcass and hung it outside the cave entrance. This lured a bear from the cave, and when Davidson returned a short while later the bear had eaten the deer and was sleeping nearby, where Davidson shot it. The killing of the bear, especially the timing, is the main discrepancy between different accounts of the story. The location of the bear when shot is also disputed.

After killing the bear, Davidson and members of his hunting party returned to explore the cave, using pine torches and matches. Davidson returned to the cave over the next few years many times, bringing small groups of family and friends with him. In early trips, stalactites were broken off to mark the route out of the cave. By 1877, exploration parties were using rope or lengths of string to mark the trail out of the cave. [1] 1877 also marked the discovery of the 110' exit. [2]

By 1880, news of the cave had spread throughout the Illinois valley. In that year two brothers, Homer and Ernest Harkness, took a squatter's claim at the main entrance to the caves. Exploration of the cave continued, and development around the mouth of the cave began. The caves were publicized in the Grants Pass Courier by Homer Harkness and Walter Burch in 1885, advertising that there was camping, good pasture, and "medicinal" waters at the cave. Harkness and Burch, from Leland, filed a mineral claim on the 160 acres surrounding the cave on May 19, 1885. Their intent was to construct a "trail or waggon [sic] road to said caves in the near future." [3] They were unable to acquire the land, however, because the land was unsurveyed. Burch later sued the Oregon Caves Company over the claim, insisting that his claim was valid under the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 (20 Stat. 89). However, a state judge dismissed the suit in 1925 in Josephine County Circuit Court because the Act of 1878 required that the land be surveyed.

Local entrepreneurs continued to develop the cave by removing formations that blocked passages. Work continued on developing trails to the cave, drawing more visitors. Advertising by W.G. Steel in his book The Mountains of Oregon and an expedition organized by the San Francisco Examiner, in 1889 and 1891, respectively, broadened interest in the cave. The Examiner expedition aroused interest in developing the cave as a resort, and the first proposal for a hotel at the site was made by A.J. Smith of San Diego in 1891. Acting as superintendent for the Oregon Caves Improvement Company, he proposed a 500 room hotel at the site, electric lighting for the cave, and a streetcar line from Grants Pass to the cave site. [4] These early proposals, however, amounted to little permanent development at the cave due to financial difficulties. Vandalism continued within the cave itself, as visitors broke off formations for souvenirs.

Mineral claims were halted not only by the lack of a survey in the area, but also by presidential intervention. President Roosevelt withdrew 10 million acres of forest land from settlement and claims in 1903, a result of land fraud trials in Oregon involving government timber. The Civil Sundry Act of 1891 allowed the President to set aside timber land from the unallocated public domain as forest reserves. The Southern Oregon Forest Reserve was established in 1903, withdrawing the cave area from settlement. This Forest Reserve was transferred to the Department of Agriculture from the General Land Office on February 1 1905, due to the difficulties the Department of the Interior had during the period of the land fraud investigations. The U.S. Forest Service was established under the Department of Agriculture on July 1 of that same year, with Gifford Pinchot as Chief Forester.

The USDA Forest Service then held control of the Oregon Caves area as a part of the Southern Oregon Forest Reserve. Mineral and settlement claims were forbidden by Roosevelt's withdrawal of the land. In 1906, the Siskiyou National Forest was established within the boundaries of the earlier Southern Oregon Forest Reserve. This allowed mineral entry and settlement under the Forest Service guidelines, but only under certain conditions. By this point, the cave area had experienced limited development and construction, including a small cabin built by the Examiner group, a camping area near the cave entrance, and blasting and obstruction removal within the cave itself, mostly by Burch and Harkness.

1906 saw the passage of a bill in the U.S. Congress that was critical in shaping the history of the caves. On June 8, 1906, Congress passed An Act for Preservation of American Antiquities, more commonly known as the Antiquities Act. This act allowed for the President to set aside as National Monuments "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States." This act became the cornerstone of preservation within the federal government, preserving all types of resources. It allowed preservation advocates an easy way to meet their needs, resulting in a broad range of sites united in name but not in content.

The bill was important in that it allowed for the protection of areas to be preserved without a distinct purpose (as seen in the establishment of National Parks - the preservation of areas with exceptional natural beauty), growing to include areas that local and federal officials sought as national parks. However, the bill did not stipulate that the areas be funded, and all national parks required support and approval in Congress because they involved federal allocations. Instead of pushing for a bill to establish a national park, which would all be held up to the example of Yellowstone for natural significance, officials could lobby for the proclamation of a National Monument. This was much easier to achieve because it only required the signature of the President. However, these areas were not seen as resources of the importance of National Parks, a status that hindered the development of the National Monuments, especially following the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.

The ambiguous language in the Antiquities Act allowed for a wide range of possibilities. It allowed special interest groups to gain protection for areas that federal agencies deemed unworthy of protection by other means. Many areas that could be protected under the Antiquities Act did not meet the amorphous standards for National Parks. President Roosevelt used the language of the act, especially the "scientific interest" clause, to establish monuments with a wide range of significance. The ambiguity in the act gave him vast latitude to create his own version of the boundaries of the monument category. There were limitations, however. National Monuments could only be established on federal land, including unallocated public domain, National Forests, and military reservations.

Most of the early National Monument proclamations established protection in areas that had previously been placed in temporary withdrawals. There was little argument about the suitability of reserving places already withdrawn from public exploitation, places which were predominantly protect the cave. [5] Associate Forester Overton W. Price responded, stating that the monument proclamation had been submitted to President Taft. On July 12, 1909, Taft signed Proclamation No. 876 (36 Stat. 2497), officially establishing the Oregon Caves National Monument. This 480 acre tract was protected from "any use of the land which interferes with its preservation". The monument fell under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, as they controlled the surrounding Siskiyou National Forest. National Monument status was deemed appropriate not only for the potential scientific possibilities, but also because of the amount of vandalizing by visitors. The Forest Service also saw the establishment of the Monument as a way to engender local support for the Siskiyou National Forest, in addition to the possibility of federal appropriations to promote tourism within the region. The size restriction of 480 acres did not preclude timber harvesting in the surrounding forest, and was in accordance with the Antiquities Act requirement that the size of such reservations be limited to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.

About the time of the Monument's establishment, the Forest Service was receiving requests for permits and leases to develop the cave site. As early as 1908, the Forest Supervisor in Grants Pass received a request from G.O. Oium to develop electric lighting within the cave, make improvements in the circulation system within the cave, develop a guide service, and place tents for rent on the site. [6] Other early attempts to secure a Special Use Permit by local entrepreneurs to establish a guide service and provide lighting within the caves were made, but the Forest Service did not initially act on the requests.

The Forest Service was hesitant to act on these requests because it was still attempting to define its own role at the Monument. The discussion involved the Forest Service's ability to let contracts on government lands, their position with respect to the cave guide service, control over the cave entrance, and other policing activities. The guard issue was settled in the spring of 1911. A guard was provided primarily as a protection against vandalism with a secondary purpose of providing a guide service through the cave. [7]

The issue of permits for construction on National Monument land was debated within the Forest Service. In 1912, a USDA solicitor stated that the Forest Service did not have the authority to issue a permit for the development of the Monument as a resort facility. As a National Park, however, the Oregon Caves would be allowed development under a concessionaire contract. This spurred an early attempt to garner National Park status for the Oregon Caves, led by the Game and Fish Protective Association, a local group pushing for the creation of a 200,000 acre park to facilitate hotel and road building. This attempt failed, even though two separate bills were introduced in Congress to try to establish a National Park at the site.

The passage of the Term Occupancy Act on March 4, 1915 allowed the possibility of concessionaires at the Monument. This bill permitted the Forest Service to lease land for the construction of hotels, summer homes, concessions, and other recreational uses. Local entrepreneurs were again encouraged by this act, but the Forest Service was reluctant to grant a lease to most of the development schemes because the applicants did not possess sufficient capital to make worthwhile improvements. The Secretary of Agriculture stated the official view in the statement "it is our policy to encourage the development of recreation areas, like the Oregon Caves, in every way possible." [8] The lack of a road into the Monument was also a concern for the Forest Service, as the ability to draw large numbers of visitors would be necessary before a long-term permit was issued.

Even though the Forest Service was now allowed to make long-term concession contracts, the agency remained cautious about development at the cave site. Planning concerns were of high importance to the District Forester from Region 6, headquartered in Portland. Assistant District Forester C.J. Buck summarized the agency's agenda and process in a letter to Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor MacDaniels in February of 1920. Buck wrote:

I think there is no doubt but that the Forest Service is obligated to undertake a plan of development at the caves. It is also absolutely certain that our responsibility cannot be redeemed unless the kind of improvements, location and landscaping of the grounds are worked out with great care. A recreation plan for the development of this place is absolutely necessary... Personally, I do not feel that proper development can be had unless considerable work on the ground and thought is given the matter... The matters I am particularly concerned about are outside the Caves, such as planning the location of the road, camp grounds, hotel site, parking grounds, guide's cabin and other improvements. The area of suitable land is so limited that considerable foresight must be exercised in placing the improvements where the effect will not be displeasing... As a fundamental part of that plan, I would put the location of the road. [9]

The Forest Service did have an obvious desire to develop the site, but without a road their efforts would be fruitless, as only 1800 visitors a year were making the arduous trip to the cave.

Oregon Caves Highway
The Oregon Caves Highway, soon after completion.

The issue of the construction of a road to the Monument was paramount in the Forest Service's consideration of issuing long-term permits for development. An auto road had reached nearby Holland in 1912, fifteen miles from the cave. California's announcement of an appropriation to construct a highway from Crescent City to the Oregon border furthered the interest in the development of the project, as even more visitors could reach the site via the planned Redwood Highway. The contract for the road construction to the caves was let in 1921, with a time limit of 180 working days for its completion. Work started in August of that year, with a major effort in clearing brush and trees from the right-of-way. It was estimated that over a million board feet of timber and a "correspondingly large" amount of brush would have to be removed. [10] The work proceeded quickly, and by October the road was 1/3 complete. [11] The 11.7 mile road was officially opened on June 27, 1922, at a final cost of $295,000. In terms of visitor numbers, the new road was quickly a success. Visitation to the Monument jumped from about 1900 people in 1921 to over 10,000 in 1922.

At this time, a tent camp was being run at the caves by McIlveen under the first contract granted by the Forest Service on the site. Food was also provided for visitors at the cave. The increase in visitation prompted the Forest Service to draft the first development plan for the area. This included the development of a number of small cottages at the confluence of Grayback and Sucker creeks for visitor accommodation on land recently transferred from the General Land Office to the Forest Service. The development at the Monument included a proposed 25 x 35 foot log house to be built about 700 feet down Cave Creek from the main entrance to the cave and a number of small cottages near this hotel. The proposed Union Creek development near Crater Lake was taken as the model for the development at the Monument. Buck envisioned a ranger cabin and picnic tables in the area near the cave entrance. The Forest Service was clear on the style of the development from the start. A Special Use Permit drafted in 1922 includes a condition that "All buildings and structures shall be of the same general style and of an accepted type of rustic architecture." [12]

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Last Updated: 22-Sep-2001