QUICKSBURG – Joe Procter said he has seen subtle changes throughout the caves that make up Shenandoah Caverns, the place he’s now worked at for almost four decades.
The caverns, though, are much older than the 100 years they’ve been open as a tourist attraction tucked in the hills of Shenandoah County. Procter said it’s almost like opening a time capsule.
“We get so many return visitors. People visit the cave on a school trip when they were in second grade. Years go by and then they bring their spouse to the caverns. Then they bring their children. And then their grandchildren. The cycle goes on, ”Procter, Shenandoah Caverns vice president and general manager, said. “If you ride down the elevator down into those caverns and you step out that door, the cave is basically the exact same way the last time you saw it. You could have been here 30 years ago, but when you open that door, you’re back. You don’t get many chances to step back in time. ”
Shenandoah Caverns will celebrate those types of moments all year as it commemorates its 100th anniversary after opening in May of 1922. On May 21, Procter said, a day of events will be planned, culminating in a grand fireworks display on the property. Other events will be held throughout the summer months, he said.
Despite almost imperceptible changes in the caverns, Procter did admit, however, that he can point out where he’s seen growth taken place the last 30 years, particularly flowstone – sheetlike deposits of calcite or other carbonate minerals left by running water – forming on the cave floor.
The amount of moisture brought to the caverns, whether it’s rain or melting snow, is what brings minerals into the cave and forms stalactites, he said. It takes about 120 years per cubic inch to form them.
“A lot of people come here to see the cave and they’re wondering how it’s changed in the last 10 to 100 years,” Procter said. “But the geology of a cave and how they form, these caves date back eons. So, 100 years is a relatively small time in the history of the cave itself. But there are some minute changes in the formations and the coloring of the formations. ”
The same can almost be said about the longevity of the caverns as a tourist attraction.
In 1928, Procter said you could take a train roundtrip from Washington, DC to the caverns for $ 1, grab a chicken dinner for 75 cents and purchase a ticket for the caverns for $ 1. Tickets are now $ 30, but Procter said that price was still about equal to what $ 1 was back then.
According to Procter, the building of the southern railroad led to the discovery of the caverns back in the 1880s. The railroad received permission from landowner Abraham Neff to dig a rock quarry for stones for the railroad.
That digging led to the exposure of what was eventually found by the Neff family’s sons when they were exploring the quarry.
“Boys have to be boys, and they had to go see what this big hole was about. They were the ones that climbed down about 275 feet to discover the caverns, ”Proctor said in a previous interview. “So, they probably had a story to tell when they got back home.”
The Neff family eventually sold the property to businessman Hunter Chapman of Woodstock, who had stock in the B&O Railroad. Chapman was looking to build an attraction that would bring people to the area. Nearby Luray Caverns had been open about 40 years already, so the new owner turned the caverns into a tourist attraction.
There are about 2,000 caverns in the Shenandoah Valley, according to Proctor, who said, “This is truly cave country through here.”
What makes Shenandoah Caverns unique, he said, are the formations that are present and visible, particularly the flowstone deposits along the cavern walls that resemble bacon strips. Those formations are on display in the caverns’ longest hall, which stretches about 190 feet near the tour entrance. The walls have been featured in several publications, including National Geographic in 1964.
Throughout the years, the caverns have seen many historical events. None may have been more impactful than working through the COVID-19 pandemic, Procter said.
“We’ve been open every single day, except for Christmas, since 1922. But then we were closed for eight weeks due to COVID,” Procter said. “That’s probably one of the biggest events that has happened in regards to visitation here at the caverns. We worked diligently to get the caverns back open. ”
On a lighter side, Proctor said visits from movie stars, Vice President Charles Curtis, who served from 1929 to 1933, and other celebrities have marked a few memorable moments for the caverns.
Procter said the most exciting part of the caverns’ history for him happens on a daily basis.
“Visitors that come in or children coming in and you can see that smile on their faces,” he said. “That’s why we want to preserve this beautiful piece of history.”
For more information, visit shenandoahcaverns.com.