Chapter XI., Wind Cave Continued: Pearly Gates and Blue Grotto Route



A very much longer, more beautiful, and also more difficult journey than the one just described may be taken by those in whom the desire to see is greater than the fear of fatigue, or possibly, some little danger. With this object in view the Fair Grounds' Route is followed through Monte Cristo's Palace and into Milliner's Avenue. Here we leave it by dropping off the bridge into a rough hole, which proves to be a passage descending into Castle Garden directly beneath the Avenue, and a room of considerable size, plentifully supplied with bowlders. Although interesting to visit, it has no points of such special merit as would seem to require a detailed account, the main importance attaching to it being the fact that it is the first portion of the eighth level visited. A little beyond, however, is something quite new. The floor is covered with a light yellow crust of calcite crystal, sufficiently strong to bear the weight of a limited number of guests without much fracture. It generally gives a hollow sound when struck, which is easily accounted for as there are small holes noticed by which steam evidently made its escape, and through these cavities can be seen but they are shallow. One place shows the crust broken up and with the edges of the pieces overlapped, like ice broken by a sudden rise of back-water, and in this position they have been firmly cemented.

This is where the slowly receding waters of the cave lingered in shallow pools above the small crevices long after the main portions had become dry. That the crust was formed on top of the water, instead of beneath its surface, has been proved by the only body of water now standing in the cave. This is called Silent Lake, and being situated on another route will be described in its proper place, but when discovered no water was visible nor its presence even suspected until the crust gave way under the weight of an explorer. The thin sheet of yellow calcite crystal thus broken was the same as that seen in great abundance in the now perfectly dry eighth level. The gradually decreasing volume of water has left a smooth yellow coat on portions of the walls where irregularities or slopes were favorable, and at least one such place is vividly remembered if once seen. A steep incline of about fifteen feet leads to a small oval hole through the wall; towards this we crawled with no great ease; but getting to the hole was far easier than going through it into a tiny cubby not high enough to sit comfortably upright in, and too small to permit an average sized human being to turn around. Close on the left it is shut in by another wall pierced by two holes similar to that just passed, and each revealing a miniature chamber scarcely more than three feet in either direction and eighteen inches high. Being directed to examine the ceiling of the first, it was done with some difficulty and much satisfaction, for there in the center was a most exquisite bit of art work, a circular disk of "drusy" quartz about twelve inches in diameter and having the appearance of a flat rosette of fine black lace, in open pattern with small diamonds thickly strung on every thread; a brilliant, sparkling mass of gems. After Mr. McDonald had carefully removed a geode from the other little chamber, he slid down into a fourth, the last of the diminutive suite, having sufficient height to allow a sitting posture with raised head, and opened the small jewel case, while I examined the place it came from. Here all was calcite crystal heavily massed in various forms, and a harmony of blue and brown, with half a dozen round, unbroken, perfect geodes hanging from the ceiling like oriole nests. The geode taken proved on opening to be especially fine, being filled with pearly white calcite crystals of both the dog-tooth and nail-head forms, and was kindly presented to be added to the collection of cave specimens already purchased in town, to which were also added handsome pieces of "drusy" quartz, cave coral, and tufa and mineral wool.

Following the guide I now slipped down into the larger nook just vacated, and saw with considerable chagrin that the next step was down a perpendicular wall more than ten feet in height, facing a high, narrow fissure, the floor of which was merely two shelves sloping to an open space along the middle, almost two feet wide, with the darkness of continuing crevice below. Further progress seemed absolutely impossible. All things are, however, possible to those who will, and it had been willed to pay a visit to the grandest portion of Wind Cave. In order to do so the descent must be made and was. Then some little distance must be traveled along the crevice, but the angle of elevation taken by both sides of the bisected floor served as a sort of prohibitory tax together with the calcite paving, since to maintain an upright position on such a surface would require long training of a certain professional character. That difficulty, too, was overcome by placing a foot on either side of the open crevice; the first consideration, of course, being safety and not grace.

We now came to the enjoyment of the reward of merit. Flooded with the brilliant white light of magnesium ribbon, the crevice walls could be seen drawing together at a height of sixty-five feet, and both composed entirely of larger box work than any seen before and very heavily covered with calcite crystal, colored a bright electric blue and glowing with a pearly lustre. This is the Centennial Gallery, and leaving it with reluctance we passed on into the Blue Grotto to find it finer still. It is somewhat wider and higher, while even the extremely rough, uneven floor shows no spot bare of heavy box work of a yet deeper blue.

The wonderful beauty of this Blue Grotto necessarily stands beyond comparison because in all the known world there is nothing like it. The forms of crystal are chiefly aragonite.
From here we pass to the "Chamber de Norcutt," which would be considered a very handsome room if it had no superiors: and the same can be said of Union College, in which, however, is the Fan Rock to claim special notice; an immense piece of fallen box work shaped like a lady's fan half opened.

An imposing vestibule leads into the extensive but rather dreary Catacombs, from which we crawled through a little hole into the M. W. A. Hall, emerging at the top of a steep but not high slope covered with the smooth yellow crust of calcite encountered at other places, and in trying to make a dexterous turn so as to go down feet first, the descent was accomplished with uncalculated suddenness and an unsought but liberal collection of bruises. This, however, was not a happening of the unexpected and could have no attention amid scenes of wonder and beauty, and we were close to the Geysers. From a scientific point of view this is the most important portion of the cave, for here is an indisputable proof that the water in the cave was hot and that it was subject to geyser action. The surrounding region is covered with the crust already described, and at the top of a gentle elevation is thrown up in the unmistakable form of geyser cones; there being two near together on the surface described, with a third visible through one of these on a slightly lower level, this one being a new discovery, as it had escaped observation until we called attention to it.

These small cones show that after the degree of heat and the volume of water had become reduced to the merest fraction of their former greatness, they continued their accustomed work here in the depth of the earth long after the once grand old geyser had ceased to show an outward sign of life. When the water finally became so reduced even here that the steam could no longer force it through, or to these latest vents, the last rising vapors fringed their edges with a beautiful snow-white border of crystallized carbonate of lime as fine and soft as a band of swan's down, which it resembles. In the pure, still atmosphere of the eighth level, almost five hundred feet beneath the entrance, this silent proof of ancient action will endure for the admiration and instruction of many generations yet to come. Few mortals will ever be honored with memorials so lasting or so convincing of vanished power.

Proceeding on the journey the next chamber is the A. O. U. W. Hall, a large, irregular room, by the rise of which a return to the seventh level is accomplished; and the next entered is the Tabernacle, not at all resembling the last, although a similar description would be correct.

Now is reached what many consider the cave's greatest charm, The Pearly Gates. And marvelously beautiful it certainly is.

Approaching by a slightly lower level, we see a gateway opening between large rocks that light up with the soft lustre and varied tints of mammoth pearls. A wonderful effect is produced by the white calcite crystal spread in unequal thickness over the dark surface of the encrusted rocks. Just without the gate is a short but not golden stairway leading to it, and immediately within is the Saint's Rest, a chamber of moderate size beautified by another great rock on which are combined the warm, pearly glow of calcite and the cold glitter of frost by the later addition of lime carbonate vapor-crystals to the calcium carbonate aragonite.

Next beyond is the chamber containing the Standing Rock behind which Mr. Johnstone made his famous discovery of the concealed pin-head. It is an immense great fallen rock on whose dark surface are scattered transparent flake-like crystals of satin spar, resembling the congealed drops of a summer shower. The mind-reader entered the chamber by the way we shall leave it.

Returning to the spot from which the Pearly Gates were first viewed, we stand facing the most beautiful of this imposing group of brilliant scenes, The Mermaid's Resort. This is a small cove with wave marks in the white beach sand, above which rises a projecting, sheltering cliff as purely white as freshly fallen snow, with a fine deposit of frost work in thick moss-like patterns two and three inches deep.

This crystalline mass, so white and fragile, has to perfection the appearance of hoar-frost about a steam-vent in extremely cold weather, and was, no doubt, formed in a somewhat similar manner. It is crystallized carbonate of lime, and could have been deposited in such extremely delicate forms only by the heavily charged vapors rising from hot water. No one needs to be told that hot water will take and hold in solution a much larger quantity of solid matter than is possible to cold water, with all other conditions the same; nor is it news that a portion of the solid substance is carried off in the rising steam. Now the geyser cones, so recently visited on the next lower level, prove both the heat of the water and its heavy charge of solids, which gave it a far more intense heat than pure water could have equaled, and this in turn drove the steam to greater distances than otherwise it would have reached. When cooled to such a point as to be reduced to a light vapor, its movement was checked by various walls, projections, and ceiling as were in its upward path, and these received the minute particles of burden, while the somewhat brisk motion of the atmosphere, occasioned at these points by the mixing of that of higher temperature from below with the lower from above, is responsible for the dainty and varied forms assumed by the fragile structure.

Once more resuming the journey, we admire the rugged charms of University Heights, a somewhat larger and higher room than the next, St. Dominic's Chamber, but perhaps not more interesting than the Council Chamber, which besides other attractions is to some extent also a Statuary Hall. From the Council Chamber the Alpine Way leads up into the Fair Grounds directly above. This Alpine Way is a sort of cork-screw twisting through the rocks, not unlike a badly walled well, assisted at the lowest portion by a short and nearly perpendicular ladder. Next is the Assembly Room, or Crown Chamber, as it is also called on account of a handsome crown conspicuously placed. This room also contains a Moose so perfectly carved that the skeptic who searches diligently for imperfections finally clamors for the whole company to celebrate his discovery of the artist's noble skill.

Leaving this room we re-enter Milliner's Avenue and soon cross the bridge from which, a few hours ago, we descended into the eighth level by way of Castle Garden; and now the return to the surface is by the route followed before, and we arrive there at last terribly weary, but more than well pleased.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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