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History of Caves in the St. Joseph, Missouri area

History of Caves in the St. Joseph, Missouri area

For millions of years caves in Missouri existed in perpetual night. No light to illuminate the dazzling formations. No way to see the dozens of creatures that call this unique habitat home. Nothing but blackness. But sometime in the distant past, light came to the underground world. Dwight: Certainly Missouri cave resources have been utilized from the very beginning of time, when man entered Missouri and they continue to be used to this very day. To the Paleo Indians or the period of history from about ten thousand to twenty thousand years ago, caves were a very essential means of survival to those early cultures.  In the 1700's settlers from the east began to enter the state of Missouri.

Like the Native Americans before them, they used caves for shelter and protection, but they found another resource in caves necessary for survival. One of the ingredients for gunpowder. Dwight: And where the bats use a cave they leave guano on the floor, and they could extract this material, process it and come up with saltpeter crystals which, combined with sulfur and charcoal produces gunpowder. The growth of communities brought on new needs and new uses were found for Missouri's caves. Their spring fed streams were used for mills, the cool temperature was used as cool storage.

In St. Louis, caves where used as ice houses and as breweries. The turmoil of the Civil War, brought violence and chaos to the state, and Missouri's caves were no exception. With their stores of saltpeter for gunpowder, caves were a valuable commodity, eagerly sought by both sides in the conflict. Quantrill’s Irregulars were said to have destroyed gunpowder mills in Meramec Caverns, giving rise to the rumor that Jesse James, one of Quantrill’s men, later used the cave as a hideout. Then came the automobile and the electric light. Suddenly, caves transformed from utilitarian shelters to tourist attractions. Caves went commercial, and Missouri established its reputation as the cave state. Dwight: At this time, in Missouri history caves were commercialized. In many ways they modified the caves, they put in walkways, they put in platforms, and they used the caves for dance halls, beer gardens and roller rinks, all kinds of social activities.

Following World War II when we had better roads, better highways and better vehicles, they began to open caves for tourism. There's been no time since the beginning of this period that we haven't had at least two dozen show caves open to the public.  But Missouri's cave resources don't stop with the commercial caves. These underground sanctuaries provide a unique ecosystem for dozens of exotic creatures. They are valuable living laboratories; a place to study our groundwater resources. When light penetrates the darkness, the results can be astounding..

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