History & Culture

Portrait of Frank and Albert Michaud, discoverers of Jewel Cave.
Frank and Albert Michaud

NPS Photo

Early Jewel Cave History

The earliest written account of Jewel Cave is a mining claim filed by Frank and Albert Michaud in 1900. The brothers described the entrance as a hole that was too small for human entry, with a blast of cold air coming out. After subsequent enlargement with dynamite, they entered the cave with Charles Bush, a friend of the family, discovering crawlways and low-ceilinged rooms coated with beautiful calcite crystals that sparkled like "jewels" in their lantern light.

The Michauds filed the "Jewel Tunnel Lode" mining claim in Custer on October 31, 1900. Although calcite crystals had little commercial value, it is apparent that they intended to develop this natural wonder into a tourist attraction. During the following decade, they constructed a trail within the cave, built a lodge up on the rim of Hell Canyon, and even organized the "Jewel Cave Dancing Club" in 1902 to attract tourists. However, a lack of people in this region and the difficulty of travel at that time made the tourist venture anything but a financial success. Frank Michaud bought out Charles Bush's share of the cave in 1905 for $300. For a while, Frank continued to work at the cave, exploring and keeping up the annual assessment work

 
Man standing at the base of the stone staircase built by the CCC for Jewel Cave National Monument.
Stone staircase built by the CCC.

NPS Photo

Jewel Cave National Monument

A local movement to set Jewel Cave aside for preservation culminated in the proclamation of the cave as a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt on February 7, 1908. The Michaud brothers eventually moved away and their family sold the claim to the government for about $750.

In 1928, a group of businessmen formed the Jewel Cave Corporation and provided tours to the public. This continued until 1939. The National Park Service began administering the monument in 1933 and park rangers from Wind Cave came to the monument in the summer.

The Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp at Jewel Cave in May 1935. Twenty-five men, with a budget of $1,500, accomplished several projects for the Park Service. A three-room cabin and comfort stations were built. Sewage and water connections were completed for the cabin and public campground. The cave entrance was altered to provide easier access, and a surface trail of approximately 800 feet was constructed, along with a new stone stairway. The Michaud’s original log building was removed at this time.

In 1939, a National Park Service Ranger was stationed at the monument and began conducting cave tours and providing visitor services. The cabin became home to the monument’s first permanent ranger in 1941. Except for a brief period of closure during World War II, NPS rangers staffed the cabin and cave tour operation. Then, in the late 1950s, significant discoveries were made within the cave, which lead to development of a new visitor center and cave tour route.

Recent History

Since the Michaud Brothers discovered the cave, up until 1959, only around 2 miles of cave was known. Though the cave was beautifully decorated with calcite spar crystals, the tour route was short and some wondered whether this small cave was truly of national significance. Jewel Cave couldn’t yet boast the title of “third longest cave in the world”, but that would soon change.

Herb and Jan Conn moved to the Black Hills in search of adventure. They became famous rock climbers in the area, pioneering many first accents of the Needles and Cathedral Spires of Custer State Park. As they climbed, they made friends with a geologist named Dwight Deal. When the Conns asked Dwight what he did in the winter when it was too cold to climb, he said, “Well, I go underground.” They were intrigued. Dwight brought them to Jewel Cave and they fell in love with it. For the next 20 years Herb and Jan spent every spare minute they could exploring, surveying, and mapping 65 miles of the inner reaches of Jewel Cave.

Deal moved away, but the Conns pressed on. They discovered the area that would become the Scenic Tour route. With their help, the Visitor Center, elevators, and tour routes were all constructed in the 1960s and completed in 1972. Herb wrote a scientific paper regarding airflow in the cave. Based on pressure changes, he was able to calculate the approximate extent of the cave. Currently, there are over 209 miles of cave passage mapped. Based on Herb’s findings, that accounts for less than 5% of the entire expanse of Jewel Cave.

Today, cave exploration continues through efforts of volunteers and park staff. Cavers can spend up to 4 days and 3 nights in the cave, exploring and mapping uncharted areas of one of the final frontiers on earth. The chance to place their foot somewhere no one in history has ever seen is what keeps them pushing forward. New formations and rooms of the cave are found on every expedition into the unknown reaches of Jewel Cave.

 

Additional Information

Click below to view copies of Jewel Cave's planning documents, studies and reports, including:

Last updated: July 10, 2021

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

11149 U.S. Hwy. 16
Building B12

Custer, SD 57730

Phone:

(605) 673-8300
The main phone line connects visitors with staff at the visitor center. Throughout the year, the phone line is monitored by staff on a daily basis, excluding holidays and days with limited visitor services. Please be advised that after-hours messages are not taken on the system; visitors are encouraged to call the visitor center during normal operations and speak with a park ranger for assistance.

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