AUSTIN (KXAN) – A river runs through it. Well, at least it did a long, long time ago. Now a mostly dry labyrinth of tunnels and massive chambers create one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Highland Lakes area.
Longhorn Cavern is a cave with a rich history, setting it apart from many other caves of Texas. Evan Archilla took us on a tour of the world underground, starting off with the birth of the state park itself.
“In 1934, we got a group of CCC Civilian Conservation Corps workers. The CCC was a depression era program created by Franklin Roosevelt to put young men to work around the country,” Archilla explained. “These guys showed up, and with wheelbarrows, pickaxes, shovels, they manually excavated over 3,000 dump trucks worth of debris from inside Longhorn Cavern. They laid our first pathways; they built the original buildings for the park. These guys really made the park what it is today.”
Following the CCC boys’ handiwork, Archilla works his way to the first main stopping point of the tour: the Queen’s Throne, a high-backed chair-like formation, worthy of a seat for royal derrieres. The first visitors of the park quickly saw the potential.
“This was the caverns original ‘selfie’ spot,” Archilla explains. “Back in the early days of the cave, we would have couples come down here. Guys would bring their dates over to the Queen’s throne room here, set her up on the throne and take her photograph. It became really a symbol of Longhorn Cavern.”
But, all the years of human contact took its toll. Black smears from oily skin has killed the growth of the once-living formation. Archilla pointed out damage, including where parts of the formation were broken off for souvenirs.
“They just didn’t understand back then the importance of protecting these types of cave ecosystems,” Archilla said. “We use it now is a really good example of why cave conservation is so important.”
And, every Queen must have her watchdog. Archilla points his light to a nearby smooth white stone formation that looks uncannily like a dog. It looks manmade, like some forgotten idol. But it’s not. Yet you still half expect it to bark.
“This formation actually is completely natural. However, it did not occur naturally here. Our CCC crew found this formation in the back of the cave. It is made of something called dolomite, which is a denser form of limestone. The CCC thought it would be fun to bring this formation up here and fix it to the boulder. They named it the Queen’s watchdog because it now looks after the Queen’s throne.”
Beyond tourism: the cave’s connections to wars
One of the things that makes Longhorn Cavern truly unique is its long history with human beings. From early peoples to modern day, humans have been attracted to the cavern for shelter and as a source for weaponry.
A gigantic chamber called the Indian Council Room is full of evidence pointing to early human occupancy. Chert, a flint like rock that makes excellent arrow heads and other projectiles, lays exposed on the walls, bearing the scars of ancient tools. One of those projectiles the Native Americans shaped from the cavern’s chert is on display in the council room.
The cavern proved to be a useful arsenal for later explorers as well. The Powder Room has quite a history.
“We call it that because of these large brown stains that you see up on the ceiling. Those stains were left here by a colony of Mexican free tailed bats. Mexican free tails live in very tight colonies of three to 500 bats per square foot. So, if I have three to 500 bats per square foot over my head right now, what do I have down here?” He points to the cave floor. “Bat guano. Lots and lots of bat guano.”
“Back in the 1860s we had something going on back east called the Civil War. The North blockaded the South, cutting off all their supplies, including the supply of gunpowder. Somebody a lot smarter than me figured out you can take potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal, put it all together, and make gunpowder. Well, bat guano is a prime source of potassium nitrate. So all of a sudden every cave in Texas is being mined for bat guano.”
Though the gun powder wouldn’t actually be stored there, as was once thought, the chamber became a very important storage facility with supplies for another war — the Cold War. Archilla points to two green barrels with yellow official writing emblazoned on them.
“These were placed here in 1967 by the Office of Civil Defense. Longhorn Cavern became a licensed and stocked nuclear fallout shelter for almost 1,200 Texans. In the event the Russians decided to launch a nuclear missile at Central Texas, we could bring those people down here. These barrels were full of food, they could be used for storing water and also as toilets — and we hope in that order.”
Dancing in the dark
Onward through halls of white dolomite, rippling like an underground ocean, and corridors of diamond-like calcite crystals, Archilla reveals layer after layer of geological formations and human history that intertwine here in the maze. As the tour begins to loop back around to the surface, we come upon one of the more famed rooms, the Dance Hall.
It was quite the hot spot in the Depression. It seems Carlsbad Caverns was stealing much needed tourism dollars from Texas so Texans had to put a stop to that. A chamber close to the surface was found. Workers installed a 2,000 square foot dance floor. Folks dined and danced in this subterranean honky-tonk from 1932 to 1934.
Contrary to local legend, the cavern was never a speakeasy. The dances were very public —the bands even broadcasting over WOAI radio in San Antonio. And, since most of Texas was still dry even after Prohibition, it wouldn’t have made much sense to try to serve alcohol at a very public dance hall.
With such rich history and such spectacular natural formations, there’s a little bit of everything to interest the curious explorer. As for Archilla, he loves the stories the most.
“I probably love the stories more than anybody here. I would really like to get into the meat of what happened down there. Everything from the Civil War era to the Native Americans, just the early explorations, that’s what really excites me about about Longhorn Cavern. It’s all just fascinating history,” he said.
And, if you, or perhaps your loved ones, aren’t exactly history buffs? There’s always the glorious escape from summer heat in a spectacular surrounding.
“The cave is always about 68 degrees inside,” Archilla said.
And, as all us Texans know, that may be the greatest draw of all.