Luray Caverns, located in the Shenandoah Valley of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia are one of the most beautiful sights to see in an already beautiful park. They contrast nicely with the wide open spaces viewed from the famous Skyline Drive and offer natives and tourists alike the opportunity to see a side of nature that many people never get a chance to: underground. With immense stalactite and stalagmite formations that are natural works of art and take the breath away, Luray Caverns is a treasure to anyone with an aesthetic sense.
Luray Caverns was discovered in the morning of August 13, 1878 by Andrew Campbell, a tinsmith, his 13 year old nephew Quint, and Benton P. Stebbins, a local photographer. Searching for a cave, they got more than they bargained for when, after digging at a promising location for over four hours, they uncovered the largest network of caves in the East Coast of the United States.
Of course, a find as monumental as this couldn't stay hidden forever, and soon the small country town of Luray, Virginia was teeming with reporters, explorers, and scientists eager to catch a glimpse of the caves. They didn't leave disappointed. Rather, the newcomers were as astounded by the magnificence of the stalactite and stalagmite formations as the local townspeople. As Alexander J. Brand, a reporter for The New York Times eloquently wrote, "It's a magnificent cave. The most beautiful I've ever seen. Trying to compare this cave to others would be like comparing New York City to the Town of Luray." The caves even convinced the famous adventurer Professor Jerome J. Collins to postpone his upcoming trip to the North Pole in order to see Luray Caverns.
The visits to the caverns continued until a veritable tourism industry developed in Luray, with paths being hewn out of the solid rock to allow the average, non-exploring visitor access. Finally, recognizing the amazing natural wonder that is Luray Caverns, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior designated them a Registered National Landmark in 1974. The two government agencies decided that the site possesses "exceptional value as an illustration of the Nation's natural heritage and contributes to a better understanding of man's environment."
Notable Cavern Sites
- Dream Lake: Dream Lake, the largest body of water in Luray Caverns, is also one of its shallowest, with a maximum depth of 18-20 inches (46-51 centimeters). What is really amazing of this pool, besides its size, is that the waters create a perfect reflection of the stalactites above, making the average tourist think that the pool is just another collection of stalagmites at first glance.
- Great Stalacpipe Organ, The: The Great Stalacpipe Organ is the largest musical instrument in the world. Residing in a chamber that is appropriately called the Cathedral, the pipe organ produces perfect tones using the surrounding stalactites. Electronic mallets are wired throughout Luray Caverns and connected to a pipe-organ console. When a player depresses a key, a rubber-tipped plunger strikes a specified stalactite, producing a perfect pitch. This eerie, though incredibly beautiful, sound was first conceived of by Leland W. Sprinkle in 1954. The mathematician and electronic scientist, who spent most of his career at the Pentagon, spent three years searching the incredible amount of stalactites in the caverns for ones that, when struck, produce an exact note found on a musical scale.
- Limair: The old sanitarium known as "Limair" was first opened in 1901 by Colonel T.C. Northcott. Leasing the caverns, he constructed Limair above them and then installed a shaft from the house into the caverns. A 42 inch (101 cm) fan was installed at the mouth of the shaft. This five horsepower fan had the capacity to change the entire air of the house every four minutes. The cool air brought up from the caverns, purified and incredibly clean, kept the house at a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) even in the incredible heat of a southern summer. The Limair, due to the air-shaft-and-fan system, holds the distinction of being the first air-conditioned house in the United States.
- Saracen's Tent: Saracen's Tent is one of the most perfectly formed drapery deposits in the world. The rock, "falling" from the ceiling, bends and folds into itself, forming a beautiful effect almost like a large drape being folded. The translucent rock appears parted, forming a natural entranceway.
- Wishing Well: This large pool, with a depth of almost six feet (173 cm), opened as a wishing well in 1954, is another popular attraction in the caverns. Every year, the coins tossed into the pool are removed and placed in a special bank account. The money is then donated to various non-profit organizations, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. Brining in more than $400,000 since its inception, USA Today ranked the Luray Caverns Wishing Well as the most productive in the world in 1986.