Chapter XII., Wind Cave Concluded: Garden of Eden, The Glacier, and Ice Palace



There is yet another long and charming line of travel open to those who have sufficiently steady heads and light feet to suffer no loss of confidence or depression of spirit when mounting the steep stairway whose limit seems lost in the dark distance above.

There being but the single entrance, a repetition of the worn and ancient statement that all roads lead to Rome, means that many journeys may be taken in Wind Cave, but all must have the same beginning.

In the tourist season the guides have not time during the day to bring out specimens to supply the demand, so on this account night trips are of frequent occurrence; and on these occasions the number of persons in all that vast space seldom exceeds half a dozen, but their voices and laughter, and the blows of their hammers, can be heard at greater distances than would seem possible, and give an agreeable sense of companionship; yet the voice does not travel by any means so far as in other caves.

The evening we were to make the long trip just mentioned, our guide being ready before any others had gone in, we started the advance on the ninety-seven miles of enclosed, unoccupied space and had almost reached the level of the Bridal Chamber when he remembered a forgotten and necessary roll of magnesium ribbon, for which it was needful to return to the office in the upper building. I sat down on the lowest step of the great stairway to wait, and for a very short time was entirely alone in the largest cavern in the world, excepting the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky.

The unexpected experience seemed suddenly to become one of the great events of a lifetime, and was unmarred by the disturbing apprehensions of any possible danger. The entire absence of sound was indescribably awe-inspiring as

"Strata overleaping strata from the center to the crust,
Rose, Alp-high, in molten silence, as the dead rise from the dust;"

but the feeling of complete isolation from the living world would not require an unlimited time to merit the one word—horrible. Even some peril with ample companionship would be more agreeable, while it is a curious fact that the combination of companionship with silence is charming. On the occasion of one visit to the cave it was painful to observe the actual suffering of a lover of quiet, from the good-natured, but heedless, chatter of two of the party.

Presently steps on the stairs broke the stillness, a glimmer of light pierced the intense darkness that surrounded the circle of one candle, and the upper world seemed not so far away.

The interrupted journey was resumed, the route being that already described as far as the Confederate Cross Roads, where, this time, we go straight on in the main fissure instead of turning into the cross-crevice, as was done before.

We were overtaken by the specimen party and recognized the three laughing young girls only by their voices, as in full suits of overalls and white duck caps, they looked like boys. Those who reside near the large caves have overcome their objection to this costume, as it gives much greater freedom and ease of movement, besides being a decided economy. Feminine garments are so easily destroyed, but for artistic effect the substitute cannot conscientiously be recommended.

Beyond the Cross Roads the first chamber is Breckinridge Gallery, a long, rambling hall in which are combined the attractions already passed and those yet to come, but having no striking feature predominating to give special character other than the grandeur of extreme roughness, which is also the quality most observed on passing into the Stone Quarry, where great accumulations of blocks seem waiting preparation for shipment.

The next "open country" is protected from public trespass by the Garden Wall, which appears to have been well built in the long ago by masons properly trained in their craft, and extends, at a uniform height, to the Fallen Flats, where the floor is covered with slabs of enormous size that have fallen from the ceiling since water occupation ceased, as is clearly shown by the sharp edges and surfaces entirely unworn.

The journey now becomes more interesting as the Cliff-Climbers' Delight is reached, and we go steadily up the long nights of stairs until visions of St. Peter begin to rise and we wonder which way the key will turn. Near the top is a handsome growth of snow-white mold hanging in long draperies behind the ladder or spread like on asparagus fern flattened against the rock.

Arrived at the top limits of the stairs the ascent is by no means finished, but continues through three large chambers known as Five Points, the Omaha Bee Office—named by one of the staff of that well known journal—and the W. C. T. U. Hall, dedicated to the service of the organization by one of its workers.

At last the upward journey is ended at the Silent Lake in the first, or highest, level. This, as has already been observed, is the only body of water now standing in the cave, and is not more than ten feet long by six in width and twelve inches deep. The scanty volume is maintained by the very limited inflow of acidulated percolating water which reaches the small receiving basin charged with calcium carbonate; and being cold, the charge is being precipitated on the bottom instead of forming a crust over the surface as in former times when the controlling influence was a degree of heat sufficient to sustain solid matter without disturbing motion.

Rising above the Silent Lake is the Glacier, its moist surface suggesting that the lake is fed by a slight thaw, while the perpendicular front at the water's edge gives the impression of a berg having recently broken off and floated away.

The Glacier flows between two high walls of dark rock, and the steep incline of perhaps seventy feet, covered with a smooth deposit of calcite and shining with moisture, has the appearance of ice and is as uninviting for a climb. The top is connected with the roof above by a group of short, and for this region, heavy columns of dripstone, the oldest formation of that character in the cave.

An occasional overflow of the lake passes out to one side, then turns and goes under the Glacier where its first few feet of descent are called the Pearl Beds, where a variety of water-polished pebbles are being coated over and cemented together with calcite crystal.

From the Glacier down to the lowest level of the cave by another route than that taken for the ascent, there is abundant evidence that at one time this portion of the cave was subject to excessively violent activity, and if studied with a view to the penetration of the principle of geyser action, offers many interesting and valuable suggestions that can be added to and expanded into definite theories in connection with the balance of the cave; all important requirements are clearly shown.

At a short distance from the Glacier is a small circular dome, called the Picture Gallery, which evidently was shaped by water forced up from below. The descent from here takes us into the St. Louis Tunnel, a long rough passage leading down into the great Cathedral, by the still descending irregularities of which we finally reach the Garden of Eden, the objective point of a favorite tourist route, but usually approached from the opposite direction. It is a large chamber of very irregular shape, with an extremely uneven ceiling, dipping nearly to the floor and rising suddenly to distant heights, while every portion of all the varied surfaces glitters with a mass of frost work in every form it is known to have assumed; the banks of orange buds in different stages of expansion being exceptionally handsome. A portion of this wonderful room especially admired is Cupid's Alcove, where the frost is tinged with a pinkish flush from the brilliant paint clay captured in minute particles by the vapors.

The whole room is a marvel of loveliness, but unfortunately visitors have wrought such noticeable damage that wire screening must be placed before the general admittance of large parties can be resumed.

Passing out and down to a lower level, by way of Jacob's Well, we find the source of that magnificent abundance of frost work to be in the Chamber of Forbidden Fruit, where a yellow calcite floor-crust indicates the surface level of water diminishing in volume by evaporation long after the upward flow had forever ceased, and from which the rising vapor ascended to decorate the Garden of Eden, just described. But since this water completely disappeared, leaving in evidence only the record-bearing crust, a percolating drip has prepared indisputable proof of the remote distance of that time by depositing on the crust great clusters of luscious fruits, chiefly cherries, which appear to have been carelessly tossed down in heaps, but are firmly fixed in place.

The onward journey continues up and down through Beacon Heights, a large chamber which imitates Rocky Mountain scenery and terminates at the Corkscrew Path which, as the name indicates, is a spiral path winding down like a great stairway against the wall of an approximately circular chamber which is perhaps the highest in the cave, and shows the most violent water-action. The plunging torrent rushed on from here to tear out the heavy rock and form the next chamber, known as Dante's Inferno, whence, its force being divided, it went more gently in various directions. And by one of these passages we now re-enter the main route of travel once more, and finally return to the face of the earth, wondering if it will be possible to so describe those wonderful scenes as to represent with even a limited degree of fairness or justice the awe-inspiring grandeur of the entire trip, or the perfection of fragile loveliness formed and preserved as by special miracles in the Garden of Eden.

One peculiarity of this great journey was that the box work, so abundant in other portions of the cave, was here conspicuously absent.


Another route in Wind Cave is that to the Crystal Palace which, although the shortest, is the one most seldom taken by visitors, because of a certain amount of difficulty and discomfort being unavoidable. Only a portion of the great stairway below the entrance is descended, when we abandon it and climb into a hole in the side-wall of the narrow passage, from which point to the end of the trip our feet prove to be merely encumbrances.

The space crawled into and through widens sufficiently in several places to form chambers of good size, but the height of the ceiling is nowhere more than three feet and most of it only two or even less. The rough rock floor is partly carpeted with patches of loose moist clay, which is the means of our becoming as grimy as tramps, and its source is readily accounted for by an examination of the ceiling. This is easily made while resting one skinned elbow at the expense of the other. The word "abraded" is inadequate where anything approaching real cave study is attempted.

The box work of the ceiling has almost entirely lost its crystallization, and is as ready to crumble as the enclosed clay, which is still retained because it had not yet reached the necessary point of deterioration to be carried out before the great volume of water, required for that service, retired from this high level of the cave.

When finally reached, the Crystal Palace proved worthy of the effort, its decoration being entirely of dripstone and very beautiful, although on too small a scale to be compared with similar work in many caves: it is merely an attractive "extra" in Wind Cave, and not one of the important attractions that give the Cave the rank that may have a few equals but no superiors.

The first room is scarcely more than twelve feet in either direction and not quite six feet high. The glassy ceiling is thickly studded with small stalactites from two to eighteen inches in length, and mostly of the hollow "pipe stem" variety, from which the surplus drip rests in white masses on the clean floor around a central bowl of good clear water.

Down the middle of the wall directly opposite the entrance a rushing little white cascade has congealed, and on either side just under the ceiling is a hollowed-out nook closely set with short stalactites and small columns, all pure white.

Near by but not connected is another room too well filled to permit an entrance, but a portion of the wall having been carried out a satisfactory view is not denied. Here the floor rises to within three feet of the ceiling, and the deposit is much heavier, so that many fine columns rise from bases that spread and meet or overlap. If the cave had no greater claim to notice than these small drip rooms, it would still be worthy of a visit.

The effort to secure flash-light pictures could only be considered successful because there are none better to be had.

The atmosphere of Wind Cave is marvelously fresh and pure, and possesses in a high degree the invigorating quality which in most caves renders unusual exertion not only possible, but agreeable as well. In all the chambers and passages there is little change in the quality of the air, and thorough tests with a standard thermometer showed the variations on the different levels, from the highest to the lowest, to be about 2°; but on different days the range was from 45° to 52°. This curious state of affairs some one else will have to explain.

The only forms of life ever found in Wind Cave are a small fly and the mountain rat.

While visiting the cave, every one connected with it was most kind and obliging, especially in showing those beautiful and difficult portions that few visitors are so fortunate as to see. While this is very far from being a complete description even of the parts visited, it will serve to show what a truly grand cavern is located at the south end of the Black Hills.

The elevation at Hot Springs is three thousand, four hundred feet, and that of the entrance to the cave is four thousand and forty feet. A source of disappointment in connection with Wind Cave is that its fine scenery cannot be effectively pictured.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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