Haunted America Update: #460 - Marengo Cave
Written By: Troy Taylor
History & Hauntings of a Southern Indiana Cavern
by Troy Taylor
(Excerpt from Down in the Darkness)
Marengo Cave is located within the limestone hills and forests of southern Indiana and aside from being designated as a U.S. National Landmark, it is also one of the most stunning show caves in the eastern United States. The cave is also extremely rich in history and the events of the past, and at least one of the characters involved with it, have left a lingering legacy as a haunting.
Marengo Cave was discovered on September 6, 1883 and was located near a small community that had sprung up on land that was originally deeded to Henry Hollowell in 1814. The area remained largely undeveloped until 1817, when the land was sold to David Stewart. Marengo Cave would later be discovered on Stewart property and the family would retain control of the land and the cave until 1955. In 1839, David Stewart plotted out a town site around where the small settlement stood and after discarding several names like Proctorville, Springtown and Big Springs, he settled on Marengo as a permanent name in 1852. Marengo had been the name of the famous battle fought by Napoleon at Marengo, Italy in June 1800.
Until about 1881, Marengo was little more than a cluster of log cabins, a couple of stores, a saloon, a church or two and a graveyard. The completion of the Louisville & St. Louis Airline Railroad changed all of that though and the business district and main part of town shifted about a half mile south to the site of the new railroad depot. After the railroad crossed Crawford County, commerce began to move away from the Ohio River towns of Leavenworth and Alton and to the growing railroad towns like English and Marengo.
The only notable addition to the Marengo community prior to the coming of the railroads was the construction of a boarding school in town in 1869. This essentially made Marengo the education center of south central Indiana. The Marengo Academy was founded by Professor J.M. Johnson and was a well known school for more than 40 years. Thanks to the rough roads in the region, which were nearly impassable in the winter, students who lived outside of the immediate region had to board during the school term. Its excellent reputation attracted students from all over the surrounding area.
A young woman who was employed at the academy would play an vital role in the discovery of Marengo Cave. Blanche Hiestand was a 15 year-old girl who was employed as a cook at the school in September 1883. She overheard some of the students discussing a hole that they had found in a deep depression, about a half mile from the academy building. There were rumors that there might be a cave, which had Blanche very intrigued. After school ended that day, she went home and fetched some candles and then tracked down her brother, Orris, who was four years younger.
The two of them crossed Whiskey Run Creek and then hiked up the hill to where the local church and cemetery was located. Just beyond the graveyard was a stand of trees and it was here that Blanche had overheard that a cave might be located. She and Orris peered into the sinkhole and as they climbed down to the bottom of it, they saw a small opening in the rocks that was partially hidden by dangling tree roots. Blanche slid down closer to the opening and she could feel cool air streaming out against her face. She leaned inside but could see little in the hole but some loose rock that descended into utter darkness. She was unable to see what awaited them but she lit a candle anyway and climbed into the hole. Orris followed closely behind.
Together, the two of them slid down the loose rock into what turned out to be a cave. As they continued downward, they could feel the wet rock underneath them and could hear the dripping of water in the blackness beyond the light from their candles. The floor soon leveled out and they found themselves in a massive chamber that was more than 100 feet below the surface of the earth. The candles only created a dim circle of light but even from what little the children could see, they sharply drew in their breath. The chamber was filled with brilliantly colored formations, shimmering pools of crystal clear water, glistening mounds of stone, dangling pendants and sights so overwhelming that the Hiestand’s lost their courage and decided to turn back without going any further into the cavern. They hurried back up the slope to the sinkhole and covered with mud, ran all of the way home.
Blanche and Orris told no one of their discovery until they went to church on the following Sunday. When Samuel Stewart, who now owned the land, heard about the cave, he gathered a small group of men and boys and led them on an expedition of his own. They soon found long and twisting passageways and chambers with such splendor that few caves could compare with the number, and beauty, of the cavern’s magnificent formations.
The news of the discovery spread quickly and soon hundreds of citizens from Marengo and the surrounding communities arrived to tour the cave. Samuel Stewart soon recognized the commercial possibilities of the location and almost immediately opened the cave for public exhibition. The Stewart’s initially charged a 25 cent admission to view the cave and they also began making improvements to facilitate the larger crowds that were beginning to come. The entrance was enlarged and a wooden staircase was constructed down through the steep sinkhole entrance. Since the majority of the cave was level, little had to be done to the interior passages to make them accessible to the tourists and only a handful of now famous spots in the cave were not available during the early months of operation. Incidentally, the improvements were paid for by doubling the admission price soon after the wooden staircase was completed.
Stewart and his son, Mitch, soon began working to improve the access to the cave itself, constructing wooden stairs and a walkway that climbed the hill, surrounded and then covered the sinkhole. A trap door was put into place that would open to allow entrance to the cave itself. This entrance was used until about 1910, when the present entrance was completed. The entrance at the sinkhole was always damp and often dangerous and most visitors didn’t care to climb the 156 steps required to take them in and out of the cavern. To make matters worse, during wet seasons, a small stream of water would flow into the sinkhole and turn the staircase into a slippery waterfall.
In 1908, the cave company decided to employ some surveyors to try and fine a new entrance. The ceiling of the cave in one area was found to be only 11 feet from the surface and so the current Crystal Palace entrance was blasted into the cave.
Samuel Stewart owned the cave from the time of its discovery until his death in 1895. Apparently, soon after the development of the cave began, a dispute erupted between Samuel and his brother, Lewis, over the cave. The natural entrance was located close to the property line between their separate lands and Lewis claimed that since part of the cave ran beneath his property, he had as much right to it as his brother did. He sank his own entrance into the cave, which entered what is now dubbed the Pillared Palace. For a brief period after this, the cave was divided up. Lewis ran tours of the portions of the cave under his property and Samuel was only allowed to show the part of the cavern that was under his land. A wire fence ran through the cave, separating the two sections. Eventually, the two men realized that their behavior was ridiculous and so they reached the agreement and the entire cave was opened again. Lewis sheepishly sealed off the entrance on his property.
After Samuel died in 1895, his wife, Mary, inherited the cave and it was managed for her by James M. Weathers, Jr. She attempted to sell it off for several years but still owned the cave at the time of her death in 1899. After Mary passed away, the control of the cave was divided among ten heirs and in order to manage it, the Marengo Cave Co. was incorporated in 1900. The ten family members owned various amounts of stock in the company and each year, the individuals would bid a percentage of the gross income for the right to operate the cave.
Mitch Stewart was chosen as the first manager of the cave and he operated it until 1911, when J.M. Weathers, Jr. was hired back to run it. A year later, the cave was put up for sale and while Weathers was interested in buying it, something occurred (that remains unknown) that kept him from doing so. He was still the manager though when Charles Fitzgerald, a lawyer from Louisville who had married Minnie Weathers, began buying up stock in the cave company. He eventually gained a controlling interest in the cave.
Weathers remained the manager of the cave, hiring new guides and exploring new parts of the cave, until his death in 1918. Mitch Stewart, or “Uncle Mitch” as he was fondly called, once again took over as manager. He remained in this position until the middle 1920’s, when Charles Fitzgerald moved to Marengo and took over the running of the cave.
The first electric lights were installed in the cave in 1923, although only in the section known as the Crystal Palace. Lanterns were used throughout the rest of the cave but this major improvement again doubled the admission price, raising it to $1.
Business began to increase at the cave in the early 1900’s. Since travel to the cave was still difficult by road, most visitors came by railroad. The Louisville, Evansville & St. Louis Airline Railroad ran frequent excursion trains from all three cities (although less often from St. Louis) for the express purpose of visiting Marengo Cave. Local farmers and town residents would bring their wagons to the train depot and would transport visitors the mile or so to the cave. These same visitors often stayed at the Murphy House Hotel, or simply dined there on their famous chicken dinners, and then caught the train back home in the evening or the following morning. Railroad excursions began to decline in the later 1920’s, thanks to the popularity of automobiles, but excursions continued to Marengo until the time of World War II.
Charles Fitzgerald continued to operate the cave through the Great Depression and through World War II. Business declined sharply during this time but word of mouth advertising and the beauty of the cave brought in enough customers to keep things running, even during the worst times.
Shortly after the war, Fitzgerald’s health began to decline and his son-in-law, Wilbur Lindley, took over management of the cave until June 1955, when Floyd Denton, a well-known local businessman purchased the cave. He had recently sold his drug and appliance store in Marengo and had used the proceeds to buy up stock in the cave company from various heirs. He had big plans for the cave and immediately set to work on them. He built a new ticket office and gift shop to replace the old clapboard cave house, which had fallen into disrepair. He hired a local electrician to finally install electric lights in the cave for the first time and began to actively promote the cave, which had not been done to any extent in years. He also hoped to install overnight cabins and a restaurant on the property. Sadly, Denton did not live to see his dreams for the cave fulfilled. He died in June 1960, soon after suffering a heart attack while working on the lighting system in the cave.
After Floyd died, his wife, Lucille, managed he cave for a time but since she was never in favor of her husband buying it in the first place, she never actively continued his plans. However, she did repair the original electrical lighting system, which had never worked correctly. In 1965, she washed her hands of the place though and turned over the management to her son-in-law, Jack Hollis.
After Floyd’s death, the cave operated mostly by word of mouth but attendance remained fairly strong. It was open daily in warm weather months and closed when it was cold. Jack Hollis continued to run the cave but Lucille, who had remarried by this time, periodically put the place up for sale.
In 1973, Gordon Smith, a spelunker from Louisville, was visiting the cave and mentioned that he heard that it was for sale. Lucille told him that if he bought it quickly, she would sell it to him for half what they were asking for it. Smith jumped at the opportunity and began calling friends and other cave explorers to try and raise money. In a couple of weeks, Smith formed a corporation with three other enthusiasts to buy the cave.
Faced with a large loan payment and little personal equity, the cavers soon began an aggressive promotional campaign. They decided to keep the cave open all year around, even though the only heat in the gift shop and ticket office came from a drafty fireplace. Whenever they wanted to have a meeting that first winter, the four men had to huddle in the bathroom of the ticket office, where a small electric heater had been placed to keep the pipes from freezing. They knew that they needed customers to keep the cave open all the time, so they began erecting highway signs throughout southern Indiana and began cranking out brochures that could be handed out all over the place. They sank what money they had into producing splashy color brochures but it paid off, increasing their attendance from 7,500 people to over 13,000 after their first year.
In spite of this, the other stockholders were not happy with one of the board’s management of the cave and he was replaced by Gary Roberson. One of the first guides that Roberson hired was Bob Wyman, a high school student with an interest in archaeology. Wyman was incredibly shy at first but his hard work and dedication to the cave would later elevate him to the positions of the cave’s Operations Manager and later as the Vice-President of the corporation.
In 1974, Roberson began developing a campground along the Whiskey Run Creek bottom and also started a program for Scouts and youth groups that would allow them to spend the night in the cave. After touring and exploring portions of the cave, the groups would learn about cave safety and then bed down for the night after being chilled by a ghost story. The program was an immediate success and continued for five winter seasons. The income from this kept the cave running during the slow months and is fondly remembered by many who still live in the area today.
Other programs were implemented in the cave as well, including some that were a bit odd.
Throughout the history of the cave, it had been used for a variety of purposes, including church services, weddings and even square dances. In 1971, Arthur Eve, the music director at the Marengo School, decided to produce the musical “Oliver!” in the cave, complete with pit band, a stage and seating for about 300 people. This production led to the formation of the Crawford County Cavern Coral Theater group, which produced two seasons of plays in the cave. The cool temperatures and dampness of the cave doomed it to failure though and the novelty eventually wore off.
In 1974, the low budget company, American International Pictures, filmed a segment of their film Abby in Marengo Cave. The segment filmed here involved an evil spirit that was accidentally released from a cave by archaeologists and in the resulting chaos, one of the archaeologists was impaled on a stalagmite. After taking up residence in the body of a woman, the movie then continued outside of the cave. Since that time, other films have also been filmed in the cave.
While slow in the late 1970’s, thanks to terrible flooding in the region, attendance rebounded through the 1980’s. The early years of the decade marked one of the strangest events to ever occur at the site -- a cave robbery! On July 28, 1982, a tour group of 27 people was passing under the famed Penny Ceiling area on the Dripstone Trail Tour when a masked gunman with a sawed-off shotgun appeared on a ledge and announced “this is a hold-up!” The visitors, thinking this was a joke and somehow part of the tour, started to laugh. This angered the would-be robber and he fired off the shotgun into the ceiling. The crowd quickly sobered, realizing that the man was not kidding. The gunman took the flashlight from tour guide Pete Crecelius and had Pete put all of the visitor’s wallets and valuables into a plastic bag. He turned off the lights and ran away, leaving the group standing there in complete darkness. Pete managed to find his way to a light switch using a guest’s lighter and then took his group out of the cave, shaken but unharmed.
As it turned out, the robber wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was. He was obviously someone who was familiar with the cave and Pete was sure that he recognized the voice of the masked thief as belonging to a former employee. He was right and the man was arrested two weeks later and served a 10-year prison sentence for the robbery.
The following year, the cave celebrated its centennial and then in 1984, one of the most important events in the site’s history occurred when Marengo Cave was designated as a National Natural Landmark. The cave was awarded this status mainly on the basis of it being a textbook example of a cave in the middle, or mature, stage of development. It is also the most decorated cave located in the Interior Lowlands Province of the United States, with high quality formations. From this point on, the cave was monitored and protected by the National Park Service, although it remained privately owned.
This new designation greatly enhanced the public image of the cave and attendance soared, soon setting and breaking new records. Today, the cave is owned and operated by Cave Country Adventures, which also operates Wyandotte Cave and Cave Country Canoes in the area. The grand tradition of cave entertainment and education continues today and the company offers many activities for groups and individuals, including various tours, group overnights, underground adventure tours, camping and much more.
In all honesty, I never imagined that by following a roadside sign would I discover such a place of history, mystery and natural beauty. If you have never discovered Marengo Cave for yourself, you are missing a rare treat and ghost story or not, it is well worth the trip!
THE GHOST IN MARENGO CAVE
I learned about a haunting at Marengo Cave in the same way that I learned about the cave itself -- by accident. Thanks to a passing comment by one of the excellent tour guides here, I heard about a former guide who may have never left the cave at all. He loved the place so much that he retired under protest and after his death, has allegedly returned to wander the passageways and (oddly) to continue making music on cave formations -- as he first did more than 75 years ago.
Bill (Willie) Clifton often boasted that he had walked more miles underground that any person in history -- and perhaps he did. Willie was a guide (although he preferred the name “caretaker”) for over 50 years at Marengo Cave. As a young man, Willie had traveled the country, working at various jobs, until he was hired by J.M. Weathers, Jr. as a guide in 1913. He was 27 when he came to work at the cave and retired under protest at the age of 80 in 1965.
Bill claimed that he had walked as many as 80,000 miles underground during the time he worked at the cave. He was almost always in duty, whether he was being paid or not. Before Floyd Denton bought the cave in 1955, a bell was kept outside of the cave house. When visitors came to the cave during the off season, or often after hours, they would ring this bell for a guide. Bill would walk over from his house, which was a short distance away, and would take them on a tour, no matter what time it was. He loved the cave and took pride in the fact that he knew just about everything about it that there was to know. His wife Mary often stated that “the cave was his life.”
He also loved music and would sing for his visitors during the tours. He would stop during the tours and play music on the cave formations using a wooden mallet. In those days, before anyone knew the damage that could be done by handling or touching the various stalactites and formations in the cave, Willie would hammer out all sorts of tunes and melodies on the stone. He would play the pillars of the Pipe Organ formation in the Crystal Palace, would strike the folding draperies near the Elephant’s Head and even left a wooden ladder in place to that he could climb up and strike the Chimes on the Palisades. He had found that the stalactites would elicit different notes and once, early in his career, provided the music for a wedding that was held in the cave. Before the blessed event, he spent hours practicing in the cave each night.
Interestingly, Bill never made much more than $10 a week for most of his career. Even after more than 50 years in service, his salary topped out at twenty-some dollars for a week’s salary. He never asked for more though and once had the opportunity to go to work for Wyandotte Cave for more money but he wouldn’t leave because Marengo Cave needed him.
Bill continued to work until 1965 and he was finally forced to retire just short of his 80th birthday. Everyone thought that he was getting too old to be a guide but he fooled everyone by living another 16 years! This was even in spite of the fact that he fell off his roof while doing some repair work when he was in his 80’s and broke his neck.
At the age of 88, Willie made his final trip through the cave, although he lived seven more years and finally passed away in 1980. Since that time, he has become known as a genuine legend of Marengo Cave and some believe that his last walk through the cave in 1973 may not have been his final journey after all. There are those who suspect that he still lingers in the cave today. Bill Clifton may be the cave’s greatest legend in more ways than one…
According to tour guides and some local folks, Willie Clifton never left his beloved cave. A number of strange incidents have taken place here in recent years and not surprisingly, Bill’s ghost has been blamed as the culprit. One guide that I spoke with was in the cave late one evening, long after the attraction had closed for the night. As he was walking along one of the passageways, he heard the distinctive sound of the metal door that leads in from the main entrance suddenly slam shut. Thinking that someone had come into the cave, he quickly went to see who it was. He searched for some time, but couldn’t find anyone. Finally, he went to the office to ask who was in the cave and was informed that no one was in the cavern with him.
Other odd incidents have occurred as well and the accounts that are passed on by the guides are perhaps the most believable of all of the stories that come from caves. These are people who are well aware of the natural happenings of the cavern and events that might seem strange to a tourist can be easily explained by someone who is more intimately aware of the strangeness that normally occurs underground. When the guides, staff members and cave explorers are unnerved or shaken by events that take place -- these oddities cannot be so easily explained away.
Reports say that visitors and guides have often heard the sound of someone singing in the cave and have been unable to track down whoever might be responsible. Needless to say, this has been blamed on Willie, as have the times when the sounds of musical melodies have been heard as well. One guide said that he was in the cave and during a tour, he and several visitors heard what sounded like a hammer tapping on stone. Instead of just a random clanging though, the tapping actually played out a tune. It went on for several minutes and then faded away. The group picked up the pace and when they reached the area where they were sure the sound had been coming from -- they realized that it was deserted. There was simply no one there.
Could it have been Willie Clifton, still wandering about the passageways of the cave that he loved so well? Perhaps it is, or at least I would like think that it is. What better afterlife could we hope for than to spend eternity in a place that was so important to us in life? Keep that in mind if you ever get a chance to see the wonders of Marengo Cave. Watch out for Willie Clifton and if you see him -- be sure to say hello for me!
Marengo Cave is located in South Central Indiana, a short distance from Interstate 64, and just outside of the small town of Marengo. The town and cave can be reached from the Interstate by taking Highway 66 to Marengo and then right to the cave. The cave is open daily, except for major holidays.