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If you’ve ever driven through Cave City and wondered “Where’s the cave?” you are not alone. As it turns out, the cave is right under your feet, and as you drive through the center of town, you are passing directly over it. For over 20 years, the Crystal River Cave in Cave City, Arkansas, has been closed to the public. Owners Dan and Irma Carrigan recently began offering tours into this almost forgotten piece of Arkansas history.
A sign featuring a Native American in full headdress advertises the Crystal River Cave tours and motel. It’s a sign I’ve seen dozens of times as my family sought out a Cave City watermelon or passed through town on a trip to visit Mammoth Spring. The buildings on the property were indeed unique. but being boarded and shuttered, they were clearly no longer providing the services advertised on the sign. I assumed it was just another business that had succumbed to the fate of time.
When rumors began to circulate that the owners would start offering tours of the property after over 20 years, I reached out to Irma Carrigan who invited my family to join an upcoming tour. I went expecting to see a cave but left having discovered so much more. Often, it’s what’s underground that makes a cave so special, but the Crystal River Cave has a much bigger story to tell.
The main house and former motor courtrooms are eye-catching and unusual, and this is where the tour begins. Visitors will quickly learn how unique the buildings constructed by Hubert Clarence Carpenter in the 1930s truly are. Carpenter’s dream to build a tourist camp that highlighted his Christian faith and the Native American culture of the area became a reality when he purchased the land and cave in 1932 and hired local carpenter and stone mason Prince Matlock to bring his vision to life.
Look closely, and you will see that these buildings aren’t traditional by any means. The surface of each structure is covered from ground to roof with several types of quartz, crystals, petrified wood, and Native American relics such as bone, arrowheads and rocks, collected from all 50 states. Most notable is the thousands upon thousands of geodes that are stacked up to four layers deep in some areas of the exterior. The geodes were originally part of a wall built by Native Americans on a nearby farm, and many of the other artifacts were collected from the cave and surrounding property. Community members were paid to gather artifacts, and local children earned twenty-five cents for each bucket of rocks that were used in the construction.
The structure is adorned with multiple symbols, including Christian crosses, Native American fertility symbols, suns, torches and a rare sandstone-carved face that was found inside the cave. Archways on the home’s back entrance are shaped like tuning forks as a nod to Carpenter’s wife, Eunice, who loved music and provided lessons to people in Cave City.
The motor court was in operation for over 20 years until car designs outgrew the design of the buildings and the seemingly never-ending need for renovations became too much. The motor court was closed, but the cave continued to be a source of interest to the public and was open for tours through the early 1990s.
The Crystal River Cave is believed to have been discovered by Osage Indians and used as a shelter through the 1700s. Artifacts indicate that they may have slept in the upper chambers of the cave and that lower portions may have been both a source of water and an area used for tribal activities and rituals. There are several etchings depicting a buffalo and a man on a horse, which are believed to have been made by the Osage people. Additionally, a large flat rock sits just inside the cave opening. Although it has never been opened, it is believed that it may be the final resting place of an Osage chief.
In the 1930s, electricity was installed in the cave long before many homes in the area. Steps into the cave built by Carpenter and Matlock made modern access to the cave much easier, but the Osage would have had to carry torches and climb through narrow and steep openings to navigate much of the cave. The cave river and the consistent 58-degree temperature of the cave likely drew the Osage to the area.
The cave has at least five main chambers, though the lower chambers are full of water for much of the year. The Crystal River, which runs through the cave, is still a mystery. Although rumors abound, the source of the river has never been discovered. The water levels are seasonal. and studies have linked water levels in the cave to water levels of the Mississippi River. The river was the primary source of water for Cave City until the 1970s, and pipes that were drilled down to draw water from the cave are still visible. When the water supply was getting low, the city drilled deeper, resulting in flooding of the lower chambers of the cave. Since then, access has been limited to skilled divers who have mapped out as much of the cave as possible until they reached areas too narrow to continue.
If you have visited other local caves, such as Blanchard Springs Caverns, the inside of this cave may be surprising. Blanchard is a limestone cave covered with stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws and other cave formations. The Crystal River Cave is primarily a sandstone, meaning it lacks some of the features that make other caves so popular. The large chambers are still impressive, especially when you connect their use to the area’s history. Large fault lines that naturally help protect the cave’s integrity are visible. A constant dripping slowly washes away the sandy surface, resulting in an everchanging cave.
Beautiful in its own way, the allure of the Crystal River Cave is found in its connection to the past. My 91-year-old father-in-law, Billy Joe Anderson, grew up in an Arkansas quite different from the one we know today. Over the years, he has shared many of his unique experiences, from attending school with Johnny Cash in Dyess to his family owning a general store in Olyphant to his service in the Korean War. Anderson recalls having toured the cave in 1938, shortly after the motor court was first opened to the public. He was six at the time and was awed by the experience.
When the Carrigans invited us to tour the cave, I brought my son, Anderson’s 6-year-old grandson. Eighty-five years separate their visits. When I showed Anderson my photographs, he said the memories came flooding back. Seeing the pictures made it feel like it was just yesterday when he had been inside. Even though my father-in-law and his grandson couldn’t tour the Crystal River Cave together, I am thankful they had a shared experience.
Cave tours will be available regularly but are limited to 40 participants, so advanced reservations are highly recommended. Information, tour times, and many historical photographs are available on the cave’s Facebook page. Private tours are also available.
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