In September 1899, reports circulated about the discovery of caves in the mountains of Claiborne County, located about 100 miles from Johnson City. Reportedly, the caves, if true, would rival the famous Mammoth Cave of Kentucky or the Luray Caverns in Virginia.
Map of the State of Tennessee Showing the Three Divisions of the State. Claibourne County Is In East Tennessee at the top. See Asterisk.
It had been known for many years that a cave existed in the mountains and the residents of that county developed a superstitious awe of the place and would rarely venture into the locality, even in broad daylight, owing to the peculiar wind which issued from the narrow mouth of the caverns.
During that era, Mr. James Housely, owner of the lands on which the caves were located, organized an exploration party. Guides were obtained by the owner and preparations made for a thorough examination of the area. Upon reaching the mouth of the cave that was located in a deep mountain gorge several miles from any residence, it was found that the stories told by the natives appeared to be accurate.
The opening was small, barely large enough to admit a normal sized person. From it blew a constant strong current of warm air with sufficient force to cause a handkerchief or other light substance to flutter in the breeze. The natives once stated that as soon as cold weather set in and throughout the winter, the current was reversed and was drawn into the cave with sufficient force to suck in dried leaves and other forest debris that came within its radius.
Upon entering the cave, the party encountered a narrow passageway, extending into the heart of the mountain for several hundred feet. At the end of this passage, the cave suddenly widened into an immense chamber, the end of which could not be seen with the light of the torches carried by members of the party. The chamber had a level, dry floor and from it hundreds of passages branched off.
Through one of these passages blew a strong current of air. This option was selected for further exploration. It sloped downward and was pursued over a half mile. Suddenly, a peculiar organ-like roaring and ringing began to be heard, causing the explorers to panic. The guides insisted on turning back, but the owner of the property pushed on for half a mile farther, with the noise constantly swelling in volume. Suddenly, another immense chamber was found at the end of which a gigantic formation of stalactites and stalagmites was found.
Through these rushed a current of air, producing the peculiar music which had frightened the guides and caused the whole party considerable wonderment. The explorations were not continued beyond this second large chamber, but it became evident that the caves were immerse, and plans were made to systematically explore them as soon as possible.
A series of similar caves had previously been partly explored a number of years prior in Cumberland County in a deep mountain gorge, known by locals as “The Gulf.” The natives shunned this locality like they did in Claiborne County and no one would reside near the caves for any quantity of money.
In the Cumberland County caves, there were three separate entrances. At two of them, the same peculiar currents of air were noticed, one of them being warm and balmy and the other strangely felt as if it came from a frozen subterranean lake. Inside two of the caves, which were penetrated for several miles, were found immense stalagmites and stalactites, while through another a large subterranean river flowed.
This same stream came out the other side of the Cumberland plateau in White County, where it was known as the Caney Fork of the Cumberland River and was deep enough for navigation within a few miles from the point at which it issued from the mountain.
That was in 1899. If any of my readers can furnish more recent information about these caves, I would appreciate hearing from you.