Only sixty short minutes from the St. Louis Arch is the buried underground cave where Jessie James once hid from authorities. His ‘strong box’ safe (from the train robbery at Gadshill, Missouri) and a few of his rifles still remain in the cave. Even farther back in history, the Meramec Cave (nicknamed “America’s favorite cave”) was a source of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) used in manufacturing gunpowder.
The Confederate troops destroyed a Union held gunpowder facility inside the cave in 1864. The cavern was called “Saltpeter Cave” and its largest room, “The Ballroom”, was used as a dance hall through the late 1800’s and in to the early 1900’s by locals.
Later in 1933, a cave fanatic named Lester Dill discovered the ‘upper levels’ in the cave. The upper rooms hold the cave’s most unique and prized formations, including the “Stage Curtain” (which is some 70 feet of ‘cave drapery’). [This room was used for political gatherings, musical concerts, gospel meetings and more. You’ll get to listen to music and see a colorful light show in the “Theater Room” today when you tour the cave. Apparently, Meramec is still inspiring musicians today.]
After the discovery of another room containing artifacts traceable to the infamous James, the cave gained national attention and became a popular stop on America’s Route 66. Bumper stickers, barns and billboards led the way for stage coaches and motor cars and a tourist attraction was born.
Interestingly, the cave used to allow drive-in viewings and formations were broken off to be sold in the gift store. We got to see a few of these broken formations and their agate-like banded insides on our visit.
Some of the oldest black and white postcards of this time are still available to buy when you visit, although you won’t be able to take home any stalagmites or stalactites any more!
The cave has a wonderful list of formations (“speleothems”): flowstone, soda straws (also called spaghetti), columns, draperies, bacon, popcorn, shelfstone, and botryoids to name a few. The “Wine Table” formation in the cave is one of only two known ragonites (the other apparently is in Italy somewhere). Ragonite formations are the most rare cave formations in the world.
Meramec Cavern was my favorite part of the trip from Texas to Michigan and back. It was our only fun stop on our long drive to Arkansas from St. Louis on day 6 of our Robofest vacation. We got there just after they had been flooded and remodeled.
Not only was the gift store fun, the cave a delight, and the ranger knowledgeable, but they had a diner – and we just happened to be hungry for lunch.
I wish that I had taken a tape recorder with us when we went in to the cave. The icing on the cake for this field trip was the fact that we had a PRIVATE tour led by one of the rangers who has been at the cave for more than ten years.
Our cave ranger was even featured on one of their postcards. He was amazed at how much my son already knew about cave formations and geology (Kaden’s favorite reading topic besides bugs).
Not only did we have the ranger’s complete attention, but we got to do a lot of things that most visitors don’t get to do… like hold Jesse James’ rifles, take extra time exploring and taking photos, and enjoy an extra “moment of complete darkness”! I love it when they turn the lights out in the cave. I’m just crazy like that! Cave darkness is darkness and quiet you can ‘feel’.
If Missouri was a bit closer to Texas, I would certainly go back to Meramec as often as we could afford the trip. Even though it wasn’t the cheapest of attractions, it certainly was the most fun on our Route 66 jaunt. My son spent his twenty dollars from Grandma in the gift store there on a wooden gun, and my daughter bought a few things as well. We spent a little extra time lingering at the caverns and ended up getting to Arkansas just before midnight… but the detour was certainly worth it. Meramec holds a special spot in our little spelunking hearts. We hope that gas prices don’t deter travelers from being able to visit, and those who are traveling by take the time to re-discover this burried Route 66 treasure.