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Spooky History of the Mark Twain Cave
Mark Twain Cave
The show cave near Hannibal, Missouri is known as the Mark Twain Cave and one might want to visit it when visiting Hannibal. The history of the cave is somewhat spooky. After all, what other cave has been explored by Mark Twain, in real life, and his character Tom Sawyer in fiction. Additionally it has been used as a hideout for Jesse James and a laboratory for a mad scientist.
Missouri has some 6,500 caves. However, the Mark Twain Cave and the Cameron cave, which is close by, differ geologically from the others. Possibly the two caves are parts of what was long ago a much larger complex of caves. Speculation is that a glacier split a system of caves and erosion taking place for millions of years created the present configuration.There could be more caves yet to be discovered in the region. The cave is a Registered National Landmark and is located a mile south of Hannibal on Highway 79.If you visit tours are available. The tours last 55 minutes. Since the cave is mostly in its natural state it is not wheelchair accessible. The cave stays about 55 degrees so it is recommended that visitors wear a jacket of sweater and wear sensible shoes. Shopping for souvenirs, gifts, books and collectibles at the Visitor’s Center.
These caves differ from other show caves because there are no speleotherms, mineral deposits such as stalactites in the large open areas. Instead there are winding, narrow passages. The base material of the cave is Louisiana Lithographic limestone, which is only found in a 35-mile area around Hannibal and Louisiana, Missouri. Geologists date the stone at 350 million years old and the cave passages as being formed 100 million years ago. There are about six and a half miles of cave passages in the Mark Twain cave with four entrances and 260 passages.
History of the cave:
It was in the winter of 1819-20 that hunter Jack Simms dog chased an animal into an opening south of what is now Hannibal. Along with his brother, Simms explored further and found the cave, which became popular with both adults and children. One of those was Samuel Clemens. As author Mark Twain he used the cave in several books. Most of us remember the cave in Tom Sawyer. A cave can be a spooky image and being lost in one even more so. Additionally there was a dangerous person who might be hiding in the cave, Injun Joe.
The companion cave to the Mark Twain cave was found in 1925 when Arch, the son of Judge Cameron saw steam coming from a sinkhole across the valley from the Mark Twain Cave. It turned out to be larger than the Mark Twain Cave and had more twisting pathways. It was named for the Cameron family. It is Missouri’s newest show cave and tours are offered, but more primitive. There are no electric lights and only modifications made are those for safety that are required by law.
The Mad Scientist:
In the 1840’s Hannibal doctor Joseph Nash McDowell bought the cave and performed experiments on human corpses. Possibly the most bizarre experiment was an attempt to petrify the remains of his dead daughter. According to Wikipedia Mark Twain describes it in Life on the Mississippi. According to Twain the body of a fourteen-year-old girl placed in a copper cylinder that was filled with alcohol and suspended in one of“the dismal avenues of the cave.”
Children exploring the cave came upon the girl’s body. It was Hannibal children exploring that found the body after two years in the cave. Sometimes they used it to give a spooky addition to telling ghost stories. Adults found out about it from the children and forcibly took it for proper burial. Townspeople also thought that the doctor used bodies from local graves for experiments, which was a fairly common practice in that day. That also entered into the Tom Sawyer book in a grave-robbing scene.
According to local folklore the cave was used to store weapons for the Confederates during the American Civil War. “McDowell was an ardent southern supporter and was proven to have stockpiled guns and ammunition for the rebels in his St. Louis medical school,” according to Wikipedia. Jesse James who had ridden with Quantill’s raiders in an area southwest of Hannibal was probably well aware of the weapons cache in the cave, according to Wikipedia. Whatever the case Jesse James did hole up in the cave in 1879 after robbing a train near Saverton, Missouri. If you tour the cave the guides will show you where James had signed and dated one of the walls.
It was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 that brought Hannibal and the cave to public attention. Tourists from all over the world came to see the real cave, which was called “MacDougal’s Cave” in the book. The cave where Tom and Becky Thatcher’s lives were threatened. First regular tours were in 1886.Tours were done for fifty years using candle or lanterns. In 1939 electric lights were added. Judge E.T. Cameron who had served as a guide and a manager previously had bought the cave. He made improvements from a tourist viewpoint and called it the “Mark Twain cave.”
Sources: I have used Wikipedia as a resource as well as a visit to the the cave myself several years ago.
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© 2011 Don A. Hoglund