Former show caves of bluff country little known today

Javier Guzman explores former show cave Hiawatha Caverns in 2007 at Witoka, Minnesota. The cave abounds in stalactites and stalagmites. SUBMITTED PHOTO
By : 
Greg Brick
For the Bluff Country News Group

Show caves, also known as tourist caves, have existed in Europe for centuries. In the United States, the famous Mammoth Cave of Kentucky was an early show cave, with tours starting in 1816. But Minnesota’s rural show caves had to await development of the automobile, in the early 20th century, to have a chance at success.

Mystery and Niagara caves should be familiar to readers of the newspapers that make up the Bluff Country Newspaper Group. But there are many other interesting caves in our region, as described in a recent book, “Minnesota Caves: History And Lore.” Here, briefly, are two former show caves that were well known in their day.

Catacombs of Yucatan

The commercialization of the Catacombs of Yucatan is a Great Depression story, a hill-top beacon in the dusty gloom. Noted as early as 1880, the cave, in the Yucatan Valley at Black Hammer, was found to contain skeletons, assumed to be Indians, hence its name. The cave is short and simple, looking like a wishbone on a map, so it certainly did not qualify as a catacomb in terms of complexity. Its 272 feet of passages wind through the limestone caprock of the bluff. I reached the cave, on private land, after an exhausting climb up the steep, sunny, hillside, picking my way carefully so as to avoid rattlesnakes.

The Catacombs of Yucatan was commercialized for tours in 1934. A dance hall was built next to the cave, and its lights, seen from afar, were an inspiration to many. In 1995, musician Dr. Dan Senn reprised a bit of this magic with a “sound and video installation,” the remains of which were still visible years later when I made inquiries about these interesting relics. Exotic musical instruments such as the “Winged Pendulyre” were installed by this latter-day Orpheus, where previously only the flutter of bats wings could be heard. He recorded valuable oral history on the cave, detailing the hard lives of people during this dusty era.

According to Dr. Senn,

The Catacombs of Yucatan is a name for a limestone cave and dance hall which had been commercialized in 1934 in the hills separating Houston and Spring Grove; a venture which succumbed to hard times after several intense years. By the time I arrived in mid-August 1995, local memories had become vague, along with the access road, which had once passed within 50 feet of the cave. I had spent many summers in the area since childhood [1950s] and knew a little about Catacombs lore. Now, with a McKnight Visiting Artist Grant from the Minnesota Composers Forum, I was returning to dispersed memories, cave bats, cow manure, and an electricity-free cavern located a half-mile from the nearest gravel road.

The enterprise went broke, and the Depression hurried this along. The cabins, used for overnight stays, were sold off for nonpayment. When I did the installation in 1995, the road that ran close to the site in the 1930s was gone, but it had been dirt, not gravel, and getting up the hill in rain would have been difficult. The cave isn’t so spectacular to draw people from afar and so it really just attracted locals who were so greatly impacted by the Depression. My father, born in 1920, was forced to leave home at 12 and work so that he could go to school in Houston. They were all dependent on FDR work programs. I doubt that much money was made on the enterprise. It all had to be electrified, too.

Hiawatha Caverns

The name Hiawatha is a treasured tourist commodity in southeastern Minnesota, even bestowed on landscape features such as valleys. So what could be more natural than to give a show cave that name? “Visit Hiawatha Caverns, king of all the underground and father of all caves,” ran the boast.

Hiawatha Caverns was discovered near Witoka, Minnesota, in 1962 and commercialized for three summers (1964–66) with the novelty of all female guides. The story that spread later was that the lazy owners had tricked the locals into removing many tons of rock and soil for free and then ran a half-hearted business which, when it proved unprofitable, led them to abscond in the middle of the night, leaving behind debts in the community. The next manager did the same thing. The cave never reopened for business, but the derelict tool shed that doubled as the ticket booth still stands. Although the cave is located in close proximity to Interstate 90, the nearest exit from that highway is annoyingly far away.

In 2007, the current owner was kind enough to allow me and other cavers a rare visit to this natural wonder on his property. A steel door on a hillside opened into a concrete tunnel and then a succession of fairy grottoes. I was impressed by the wide variety of colorful formations (the proverbial “stumps and spikes”) still existing in this twisting 800-foot maze.

This cave is not to be confused with its rival Hiawatha Caverns in neighboring Wabasha County, which was never opened to the public, despite extensive preparations for commercialization. During visits to this other cave I recall crawling through trenches dug in the floors, resembling a World War I battlefield in miniature—a battle to be played out among warring show caves, vying for the tourist dollar. But this cave has a much longer history than its rival, stretching back to 1856, when it was discovered during a foxhunt. You will indeed find that much southern Minnesota cave history begins just after the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851) opened the land for European settlement.

Greg Brick, Ph.D., is the author of “Minnesota Caves: History And Lore” by Arcadia Press (2017). His first book, “Iowa Underground: A Guide to the State’s Subterranean Treasures,” was published by Trails Media Group in 2004. His second book, “Subterranean Twin Cities,” was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2009 and won an award from the American Institute of Architects.