Lakota tribes have lived and hunted in the Black Hills for eons. Their word for the Black Hills is Pahasapa. The hills were so named because from a distance the pine covered slopes appeared black in contrast to the golden windswept prairie grass that surrounds this dome shaped mountain range.
Lakota stories speak of a hole in the Black Hills that blows air. This is a sacred place for their people. The tipi rings near the present day elevator building at Wind Cave National Park indicate that tribes camped in the area and knew about the cave's small natural entrance. Sitting Bull's nephew is quoted as saying that "Wind Cave in the Black Hills was the cave from which Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, sent the buffalo out into their hunting grounds."
It is this hole that Tom and Jesse Bingham claimed to have discovered in 1881. The legend states that these two brothers were riding through a draw when, Jesse reported, the sound of the wind coming from the entrance caught his attention. They dismounted and approached the small opening where the wind blew out quite strongly. According to legend he and Tom looked into the hole and the wind coming from it was strong enough to blow Tom's hat off of his head. Later they returned with friends to show them the hat trick. By then, the wind had changed direction and when a hat was placed over the opening, it was sucked inside.
Candles and a String
In 1881, Charlie Crary, of Custer SD, squeezed through the small Natural Entrance and became Wind Cave's first known explorer. Using candles for light, and string to mark their route, he and friends scrambled on their hands and knees into the darkness. In their flickering candlelight, they were probably the first people to see a rare cave formation known as boxwork.
Party Loses Cave
Becoming lost in a cave is always a possibility, but in the early days, losing the cave was a reality. In the fall of 1881, a party lead by Frank Herbert searched an entire day trying to find the small opening in the bottom of the gully mentioned by Tom Bingham. After finally finding it, they squeezed into the cave and followed Crary’s string deep into the depths while viewing several rooms and many cave formations.
The World's Biggest Basement
The chief obstacle to initial exploration was the small 8 by 10-inch hole comprising the cave's Natural Entrance. With the help of friends, the Binghams created a larger opening adjacent to the original one. They later constructed a small cabin over both openings allowing the cave's cool breeze to serve as an air conditioner for the cabin's residents.
In 1889 the mineral rights to the cave were sold to the South Dakota Mining Company. Soon after J.D. McDonald was hired to manage the claim. With J.D. came two of his sons, Elmer and Alvin, and his daughter, Mary.
Alvin Falls in Love With the Cave
The McDonalds didn't find gold, but they did find a special cave. One of the boys, Alvin, fell in love with the cave. He began to explore the cave. Alvin began recording his explorations. His journal states:
On the first day of January 1891 I saw fit to keep a record of the inside workings at Wind Cave, ...which I called... "The Private Account Of A.F. McDonald, Permanent Guide of Wind Cave". ...By the word "exploring" I mean "finding cavities that no human beings have yet discovered.
Following in Alvin’s Footsteps
Today, explorers of the historic zone of the cave are following in Alvin’s footsteps. The tour routes that are used today are the same routes that McDonald used.
Alvin McDonald was the first true explorer of Wind Cave. He systematically researched and explored the cave by recording information about the cave and the passages, naming rooms and routes, and making maps. Alvin’s journal gives us insights into the unusual decorations he found and the understanding people of those times had of the cave.
A Complex and Intriguing Cave
In 1892, Alvin reported that he had “given up the idea of finding the end to Wind Cave.” On April 13, 1894 the Hot Springs Star reported: “They are still finding new rooms at the Wind Cave and we have about come to the conclusion there is no end to it.” Today explorers tend to agree with Alvin. Wind Cave is a vast wilderness and the early explorers helped those who followed understand that it is an intriguing, unique place.
Due to financial difficulties, the South Dakota Mining Company stopped paying the McDonalds. However, the McDonalds had found that people were interested in seeing this unusual cave. In 1890, the first cave tours were conducted.
Partners With the Stablers
Soon, the McDonalds began looking for a partner to help build the business. In 1892, John Stabler, saw the financial value of the cave and bought an interest in the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. His sons and daughter, George, Charles, and Katie, helped lead tours and explore the cave.
Making a Name for the Place
John Stabler knew that Hot Springs was a popular tourist destination and money could be made by promoting the cave. They invited famous people to visit. Governor Lee of South Dakota and William Jennings Bryan were guests. Bryan reported that he "was enthusiastic over the beauty of the cave." These visits were advertised in the local newspapers and brought attention to the cave.
Collecting and Selling Formations
The cave was being advertised as having more miles of passageways than any other cave, being 97 miles long. McDonalds and Stablers were also selling cave formations and minerals. Katie Stabler opened a store in town to advertise the cave and sell formations.
The Petrified Man
The Stablers presented many publicity “stunts” to advertise the cave. They “found” a petrified man in Wind Cave Canyon and placed him in the cave. For a small sum you could look at “the petrified man”.
A Mind Reader!
A mind reader, Professor Paul Alexander Johnstone, came to the Black Hills in 1893 to find a hat pin that had been secreted in the cave. John Moore, a writer for the Deadwood Times and the Omaha World Herald was with them. After 3 days of searching and 3 days of publicity, the pin was located in the Standing Rock Chamber on today's Candlelight Tour.
Going to the Fair
In 1893, the McDonalds and Stablers took cave specimens to the Colombian Exposition in Chicago to promote the cave nationally. Unfortunately, on the trip Alvin caught typhoid fever. He died December 15, 1893. The Hot Springs Star reported that Alvin was now “the chief guide to the pearly gates of the Eternal City.”
Beginning as early as 1891, there was a question of ownership of the cave and surrounding lands. The South Dakota Mining Company bought the mining rights in 1889 and hired the McDonalds. However, when no minerals were found, they stopped paying them. The McDonalds filed a homesteading claim on the land and began operating as if the cave and surrounding land was theirs. Alvin reports in his diary:
April 20, 1891: About 11:00 o' clock this morning the deputy sheriff for Buffalo Gap came here and showed us a notice notifying us to remove from the claim of J. Scholfield. Of course we laughed at the idea.
Partners and Lawsuits
The McDonalds, assuming the cave was theirs, took on a partner. On September 9, 1892 the Hot Springs Star reported: The enterprising proprietors of the Parrott House, Messrs. Stabler and Sons, are constructing a hotel at Wind Cave
Who Is In Charge Here?
On October 9th 1896, the Hot Spring Star reported: There are articles of co-partnership existing between Mr. McDonald and myself. I am entitled to as much credit for the improvements that have been made and the publicity that has been given to the cave as is Mr. McDonald and until the past year have had entire management of the business. During the past year Mr. McDonald has been at the head of affairs and is anxious to kick me out. I want it distinctly understood that I am one of the owners of the cave. I do not propose to be bulldozed or intimidated and will continue to assert my rights.
Either You’re With Me or Against Me
On April 2, 1897 The Hot Springs Star reported: Papers were served on John Stabler last Saturday ordering his ejectment from the Wind Cave property. John refused to obey upon the ground that the property was his own. The question of ownership will be heard in this city April 13th.
Now Who Has It?
Again on April 16, 1897 the issue made the Hot Springs Star: We understand that the Stabler-McDonald case over Wind Cave will be heard in Custer County. In the meantime the Stablers hold possession-although they are not permitted to carry the property off to some secluded spot where McDonald couldn’t find it should he ever be given possession again.
The Land Office Decides
On July 28, 1899 The Rapid City Journal reported: The commissioner of the general land office at Washington has handed down his decision in the case of South Dakota Mining Co. vs. Jesse D. McDonald. This is the long drawn out contest that has been frequently referred to as the “Wind Cave case.”
A Decision Is Made
On December 7, 1900 the Department of Interior announced:
A National Park is Created
The land was withdrawn from settlement January 18, 1900. On September 12, 1902 Captain Seth Bullock, became the supervisor of Wind Cave and established rules that cave guides must follow.
The Pioneer-Times reported: Capt. Bullock appointed George Stabler and wife, Elmer McDonald and Peter Paulson as guides and has furnished the following rules:
It Is Wind Cave National Park
December 12, 1902, the Hot Springs Star headlines read: It Is Wind Cave National Park: Congressman Martin wired E.T. Peirce Saturday saying “Wind Cave National Park bill passed the House today. It has already passed the Senate and will soon be a law.” Thus the good things keep coming for Hot Springs.
Rapid City, South Dakota.
May 20, 1902
Wind Cave Survey
Special Agt. C.L.O.,
Rapid City, So.Dak.
I hand you herewith plat and profile of the Wind Cave, South Dakota, showing that portion which has been exp1ored and opened and possible to survey without opening up the crevices farther, repairing stairs and ladders, on one trail leading from “Sta. A as marked upon the plat leading to Sat". there is a ladder and stair way beyond “J” about 50 feet in length, a portion of which is entirely decayed and out making it impossible to survey farther on this route, which extends 3 or 4 hundred feet beyond Sta “J”.
The formation indicates that the cave may extend for a distance of one mile east, one mile north, and from 2 to 2 ½ miles south and west. Underlying sections 1, 2, 3, 1O, 1l, l2, 13, 14, 15, East 1/2 sections 4, 9, 6, T.6 S., R.5 E. and sections 34, 35, 36, T.5 S., R.5E, B.H.M. “See diagram.”
The plat shows the line opened and explored through: which it is possible to go without crawling and some parts of these lines are very narrow and low, at other places the Crevices open into great caverns and grotesque looking rooms. The plat shows in many places by dotted- lines where unexplored crevices branch away from the explored and opened portion of' the cave. Many of these crevices have been crawled through and large grottos reported to have been found, in such places many tons of specimens have been taken, and through that portion of the Cave opened there are places which show the marks of the specimen hunter.
From Sta.74 running to "75 a" thence to "94 a” the line turns around so as to cross itself at an elevation of 50 ft. above, also crossing the main route. Sta. "87 a” being almost exactly over Sta. "85 a “course of "85 a" having passed up through a hole in the roof about 6x15 .ft. to Sta. “86 a”. thence to "87 a” which is 26 .ft. above Sta. “85 a” with a roof height at “85 a" of from 15 to 20 ft. (all over-head heights were estimated) from Station “86 a” to Sta. “94 a” is the largest area I have ever seen underground without any roof supports the roof being very flat and smooth and from 6t to l4 feet high; this immense room is called the Fair Grounds” by the guides. At nearly every turn or angle there are crevices leading away which are not opened, from all appearances, exploration and opening of these crevices can be carried on in a moderate way for the next 10 years and then the work will have only begun.
In places the crevices which are now used are very narrow and low but could be opened up with small expense. Many places have been opened up to a small extent by blasting from the sides and digging up the bottom, but only enough has been done to barely get through.
While there is less than one mile of opened crevices the trail is such (that) it consumes nearly one hour from either station “92" or "94 a" to the entrance. There is a good circulation of air throughout; the thermometer indicated from 48° to 50° in the Cave after going 2 to 3 hundred feet from the mouth. There are places where the current of air is always in and others where it is always out.
The entrance is a veritable barometer; at the approach and during a storm the air current is down, and during fair weather it is out, often so strong it will nearly blow a person away from the entrance. At the same time, 100 ft. from the entrance the current will not blow out a candle.
Except at or near the entrance the Cave is dry. No water dripping.
The entrance to the Cave is in a deep ravine the hills sloping back and raising to an elevation of from 60 to 120 ft. at a distance of about 400 ft. There is an old log cabin over the entrance to the Cave, and it bears witness to the fact that the water has come down these dry gulches and covered over the entrance from 2 to 3 feet deep. Yet there is no evidence of the water going in the Cave of late years beyond Sta. No .5, where there is a large unopened crevice, the plat shows the dry ravines on the surface also 2 small openings in crevices coming to the surface through which air comes out and goes in at the same time it does at the main entrance.
The heavy dotted lines on the plat indicate the top and general course of the divides; upon one ridge there are two points where elevations were taken and marked. Also one down the gulch. The elevation at the mouth of the entrance to the Cave was obtained from a railroad survey, brought from Hot Spring.
The survey has been slow and tedious owing to the many short measurements and the narrow and low places throughout the entire route; however, more time should have been spent in more accurately cross sectioning the crevice.
Also the line should have been laid upon the surface, and the surface line indicated upon the profile, showing the difference in elevation vertically.
The names by which some of the most important rooms are known are marked upon the plat.
The three routes are known as the "Pearly Gates,” “Fair-Grounds," and “Garden of Eden”
There are numerous crevices leading away from the different routes and one is crossed by a bridge. It is called “Castle Garden" crevice, through which the chamber called the “Blue Grotto”, is reached. This crevice is not opened so a survey could be made through it. From Stations 82 and 84, I crawled through the crevice into beautifully crystallized rooms, but a line could not be produced without being opened in places.
At stations 4, 5, 6, 60, 82, 84 and 93 on the main and "Pearlv Gates" route, there are large strong crevices, which are known to lead to large rooms; 100 ft. northerly from Sta.67 and l00 ft. easterly from Sta. 62 are large crevices leading into large rooms, which are so pinched in Places and partly blocked by large boulders, that it is impossible to survey through.
At stations 83a, 84a, 89a, 93a and on the "Fair Grounds" route there are crevices which have been but little explored. Wherever they have been they have led into other crevices and chambers.
I was told by one of my assistants that his brother (now dead) crawled into a crevice at Sta.4. and wandered around in a southwesterly direction for 60 hours before finding his way back. Large rooms were reported found, but with one exception there has been no attempt made to return there by the same person, who started with a ball of wrapping twine, one end of which was left at the end of the crevice returning to Sta.4, but after the twine had parted a number of times the further exploration in that direction was abandoned.
From Station "J" on the "Garden of Eden" route the line can be produced into the Garden of Eden, after the stairs ascending the crevice at an elevation of 50 ft. and at an angle of 45 have been repaired or built. An expenditure of $2500 in exploring opening and surveying will more than double the underground distances.
The possibilities of wonderful discoveries by exploration are beyond the most visionary ideas of man.
C.E. and U.S. Dep. Min. Sur.
While investigating the naturally operating systems, park managers realized that the cave is not an isolated environment. What happens on the land can and often does influence the cave. Understanding where cave passages are located in relation to the land above helps us avoid damaging the cave. For example, if the land is altered, it might change the way water travels through the cave and change cave formations. Exploration is important and is a continuous project with several miles of new cave being surveyed each year.
Wind Cave Today
The mission of Wind Cave National Park is to preserve and protect the natural resources. Wind Cave National Park is 33,851 acres. Because of its relatively small size and because there are missing parts, park managers must take an active role in helping the ecosystems function as they might have in the past. This requires understanding how everything in the park relates and how the naturally operating system would have functioned. Park rangers work with researchers to replicate that natural system using prescribed fires, bison round-ups, and biological control of exotic plant species.
Last updated: May 21, 2023