Special to the Nugget
My friend was excited when he called, “Did you hear the entrance to Crystal Cave has been uncovered again.”
“Where is Crystal Cave?” I asked.
“Between Mammoth and Winkelman,” he replied. “Make sure your head lamps have batteries and let’s go.”
Sounded like fun but it wasn’t until I did a little research that I became extremely enthused about the adventure. The cave had been a big time tourist attraction in the 1920s and 1930s, featuring beautiful crystal formations and a large subterranean lake with several streams. Tourists were able to take long boat rides deep underground, crossing the underground lake following one of the lighted water ways.
On May 21, 1929, theArizona Daily Starannounced, “A crystal cave, almost endless, 10 miles south of Winkelman is to be opened June 2, according to A.L. Logan of Long Beach, California who discovered the new wonder with Fred Rhodes. The cave has five main passes with innumerable rooms branching off, Logan says. Moving pictures of the caves will be taken by RKO Hollywood on the day they are opened to the public.”
Jerry and I park the car along an obscure dirt road off the main highway. We walk along the rolling hills decorated with saguaros, hiking towards piles of mine tailings – an odd place for a cave. No one is certain exactly why the cave with the underground boat ride closed but most people seem to agree that the tourist attraction was not able to survive the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. A gypsum mine was soon opened at the site. This was one of the things I found most interesting about Crystal Cave. It is a gypsum cave unlike most other caves in Arizona which are comprised of limestone. The gypsum mine closed several decades ago but the tailings were left behind and the openings to the caverns hidden and obscured. Many people believed that the cave entrance was deliberately blasted shut to keep out the public.
Jerry and I approach the cave cautiously, our hearts beating rapidly. The entrance or hellmouth is at the bottom of a pit in the middle of the piles of tailings. There are a few scraggly brushes guarding the entrance, not a lot, just enough to be annoying and leave a few scratches on my arms. Right away some of the beautiful crystal formations which made the cave so famous in its heyday are evident. The crystalline gypsum is slightly different from the crystal formations I am used to seeing. They are beautiful, glistening, soft and smooth. There is a fine layer of silt covering the cave floor. Almost as soon as we enter the cave we notice a few bats hanging by their toes from the ceiling. These slumbering bats, hanging upside down, have the most enormous ears.
We spot a most unusual sight. On the cavern floor, trapped with all eight feet mired in the thin layer of silt and dried mud is a tarantula. The tarantula is dead, stuck in the mud and unable to leave the cave, it must have slowly starved to death. The sacrifice of this unfortunate giant spider allows us to deduce why the entrance to the cave is suddenly revealed again. No doubt material was removed from the cave to make the underground tourist attraction and considerably more earth was removed during the process of mining but in the decades of abandonment. Every time it rains some of the tailings and dirt wash down into the hellmouth and slowly disperse throughout the lower levels of the cave as a fine layer of silt on the cavern floor. These beautiful caverns were formed over millions of years and the few decades they were buried is only a drop in the bucket of geological time. Every time it rains, the cave swallows a little more earth, reclaiming a piece of its former glory.
In an online posting by theArizona Silver Beltwritten by Ted Lake he quotes a report written on May 29, 1929 by geologist F. L. Meeker. He believed the Crystal Cave site was somewhere between 40 and 60 million years old. Meeker describes the entrance to these caves as being in the low rolling hills sloping towards the San Pedro River from the Galliuro Mountain Range. He said one underground cavern was a room, some 315 feet long, 35 to 50 feet wide, by 12 feet high with sparkling crystals making a very beautiful scene, varying in color from white to black. Meeker said he also went to a second room (cavern) which was about 430 feet long from 20 to 60 feet wide, approximately 15 feet high which was connected to two other rooms with even larger crystal formations. In his report, the geologist describes his visit into a third underground cavern at least 430 feet long which he couldn’t explore because of the low ceiling.
This day our adventure is not as ambitious. We only explore the cave a short ways. Talking about the expedition, we had plans to see if we could discover the underground lake, perhaps even a piece of the old docks or a subterranean boat still stashed away on an undersea shore. The reality of spelunking Crystal Caverns is quite different. The silt washing into the cave which has revealed the entrance is also serving to constrict some of the passageways. Of more concern is the fact that the rocks shudder beneath our footsteps. We notice that the boulders which form the cavern walls are angular with sharp edges and appear to be piled together in a jumble. We suspect that the mining operations may have done structural damage to the cavern and suspect even further that this structural instability may have been why the entrance to the cave was blasted and obscured. So Jerry and I only enter the cave a few hundred feet and hang out trying to imagine the excitement of the tourist attraction and the thrill of the underground boat rides. Mostly we just hang out and talk to the bats.