Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cave #25 - Long Island Saltpeter Cave (Chasing Old Rosy)

In early September, 1863, William S. Rosecrans was doing well in life. He had risen rapidly through the ranks of the US Army and was in command of the Army of the Cumberland. He had recently defeated Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Stones River and during the Tullahoma Campaign, and was now closing in on the city of Chattanooga.

On Sept. 5, 1863, the day before his 44th birthday, Gen. Rosecrans was in extreme northeast Alabama, across the Tennessee River from the town of Stevenson. There was a saltpeter cave in the area and Rosecrans and many of his staff visited the cave that day.

The morning of July 24, 2010, I woke up about 7:30 and was in the process of going through my second snooze button when my cell phone rang. I had originally planned to meet Gerald and Avis Moni at 9:00 to head down to Jackson County, but Gerald wanted to move it up to about 8:45. I said I could probably do that, and I quickly got dressed and finished loading up some things. The night before I had dutifully scrubbed all my gear with antibacterial spray to meet the WNS decontamination protocols.

The SCCi was hosting an open house at their newest cave preserve at Long Island Cove and I was looking forward to some good caving. I pulled up to Shoney's at 8:50, and Avis, Gerald, and Joe Douglas were all ready to go. Gerald had promised we'd stop "somewhere better than Shoney's" to eat, and I was all for it since the last time I had eaten there everything on the breakfast bar tasted like fish from the night before.

Now for the last six months I've been eating right and exercising a lot and have lost 50 lbs. I normally eat a bowl of Kashi Good Friends cereal for breakfast, which has an insane amount of fiber, or I have a quick turkey sandwich on high fiber bread. The point of this is that Gerald picked a small breakfast buffet near Manchester that had lots of greasy food. It was really cheap, but I ate a little too much grease which I wasn't used to at all anymore, which sat on my stomach like a rock the rest of the day. Next time Avis or I will pick the restaurant.

We got to the cave preserve about 11:30. I had a little bit of trouble getting my Civic to the camping area since I initially dismissed the sign pointing out an alternate route for cars vs. trucks. Once we got there, we found Buddy Lane was working the sign-in area and that a fairly sizable group including Marion Smith had just left, headed for the cave. After chatting a bit more we got our gear on and hiked up to the cave.

The cave entrance is about 100 feet up the side of the hill, and has been dug out a bit, but it's still a fairly small opening, as can be seen in the photo below. The entrance had lots of cool air blowing out, which was nice since we'd picked the hottest day of the year to go caving, and even the short hike up to the cave entrance had everyone sweating profusely. After a short rest to cool off, I took off my Swaygo pack and started into the cave, feet first.

Entrance of Long Island Saltpeter Cave
(courtesy of Joe Douglas)

Now up to this point I hadn't looked at the map of the cave yet, so all I knew about it was that it was described by everyone as "mazy." A gate was put on the cave back in 1990, with the cave being pretty much closed since then. The frame of the gate is still present, and it's taller than it is wide, so I had to lay on my side and wiggle my way down through it. Once I slid in, there was passage in front of me, so I headed down it a bit, first crawling, then stooping, then finally standing up before reaching a three-way junction.

I heard Gerald and Avis coming in behind me, so I stopped at the junction and rested a bit. After a few minutes I didn't see them so I yelled back up and asked where they were. It turns out that when I slid in, there was another passage behind my back which I had not seen at all and that was the way Gerald wanted to go. So I went back to the entrance and headed down that way, followed shortly by Joe.

Mazy is definitely the right description for the front of this cave. It alternates between crawling and stooping and turning sideways a lot to get through the passageways. On the map, we were headed towards the room labeled "First Room", and we eventually found it after helping one poor fellow find the entrance who had been wandering around lost for a bit. The cave had a lot of people in it, so every few minutes there would be small conferences of folks comparing notes about which way to go. We'd run into a group, say from Ft. Payne, then we'd see them again 10 minutes later, with both groups having taken separate routes to get to the same place.

The cave itself has a lot of mud on the floor. In fact most of the cave floor is made up of mud. It had about the same consistency of the clay you play with in elementary school, so it actually made the crawling a lot nicer than it could have been. The breakdown also has a lot of mud on it, so it made climbing up those areas a little more tricky.

Eventually we got oriented on the map and headed south, making our way into the "Big Room". This room had a few nice decorations, and a lot of 19th century signatures of Union troops. We caught up to Marion Smith in this room, who was writing down all the signatures he could, and even pointing out a few he recognized.

Gerald and Hatch in the "Big Room", looking West.
(Courtesy of Joe Douglas)

After listening to the always entertaining banter between Gerald and Marion for a while, we headed east and south deeper in the cave, doing some more crawling for a bit before coming to a large room filled with breakdown on one side called the "Avalanche Room". This is about a 70 foot tall pile of breakdown that looks like the leftovers of an avalanche, hence the name. This area of the cave looked like it probably flooded on occasion. We went down another small passageway and crawled up a bit and came into what is called the Register Room.

Hatch, Avis, and Gerald resting in the "Register Room" of Long Island Saltpeter Cave.
(Courtesy of Joe Douglas)

In front of where we're sitting in the above photo, there is a 6 foot climb-up that leads to a 70 foot tall dome. On a rock just past the climb-up are the following signatures:

Signatures of Lt. Col. Calvin Goddard and Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans.
(Courtesy of Joe Douglas)

Lt. Col. Calvin Goddard was born at Norwich, Connecticut on 9 Feb, 1838. By this time he had been with Gen. Rosecrans for sometime and served as Assistant Adjuntant-General and Chief of Staff of the Army of the Cumberland. He resigned from the US Army in November, 1863 after the Battle of Missionary Ridge and returned to civilian life. He passed away in San Francisco, California in 1892. More Info on Goddard

Two weeks after they left these signatures, the Battle of Chickamauga began, the loss of which effectively ended the military career of both these men.

I didn't like the way the climb-up to the signature was exposed, and I'm still a little big to wedge myself into the crack and pull myself up with my arms, so I didn't go right up to the signature, but I could see it clearly by standing at the climb-up.

After resting in the Register Room a bit and letting Gerald squirm around in one of the small passages off of it, we headed back to the entrance, leaving Marion in the room still writing down signatures. We took our time heading out, and continued to run into small groups of cavers wandering around. We exited the cave after about 2.5 hours spent inside. I think in all we saw about 1/3 of the cave, so I definitely want to go back and see the rest of it.

As we came out of the cave, we ran into Lin Guy, who mentioned there was another small cave nearby, the name of which escapes me. We did a little bit of ridge-walking on the way back to the camping area. Lin and another fellow found the cave but didn't go in. He had visited it about 20 years ago. Apparently I walked right by it on my way down the hill. Maybe I can find it next time.

Back at the parking area, we cleaned up a bit and visited with friends. Milo Washington and Andy Zerbe showed up from the Birmingham Grotto, and I finally met Bill Torode after Gerald introduced me to him. There was a quick SCCi meeting then we ate hamburgers and hotdogs before I headed back to Nashville. The cave tired me out pretty good, because I slept for about 11 hours, then woke up on Sunday morning for about an hour then napped again for about 4 hours.

One last note. You have to be a member of the SCCi to visit this cave. Please don't ask me about how to get there or for maps. You'll have to join the SCCi and arrange a permit to visit the area, which is leased by the SCCi from a private land owner. Visit the Long Island Cove Preserve Page for more information.

Also visit Joe Douglas' Flickr Page for more photos from the trip.