Mark Twain Cave

During the winter of 1819–20, Jack Sims was hunting along the snowy bluffs located just south of Bear Creek. Spying a panther roaming the hillside, Sims tracked the panther, following its prints through the snow and up the steep terrain. The tracks led Sims to a small, dark opening in the side of the cliff. Thinking that the panther must have chosen to make its den in a crevice that receded into the limestone, he blocked the den’s entrance with stones and branches and planned to come back with his brothers. Sims then returned to his home in the settlement of Saverton, just a few miles south of Hannibal.

 

Sims returned to the hillside the next morning accompanied by Roderick and William Sims, J.H. Buchanan, and several of his dogs. As they cleared away the stones and other debris blocking the opening, they found that it was not a panther’s den, as originally thought, but an opening to a large cave. With torches, they entered the cave and discovered an incredible labyrinth of limestone. Although Native Americans had most likely explored the caves for many generations, Sims was the first non-Native to discover the cave. For many years after its discovery, locals called the area “Sims’ Cave.”

 

The cave, a labrynth-style cave (as opposed to a cavernous cave) consists of a soft limestone called Louisiana Lithographic Limestone, which can only be found within a thirty-five mile area around Hannibal and Louisiana, Missouri. The limestone has been estimated by geologists to be 350 million years old and the cave passages were formed some 100 million years ago. The cave covers approximately six and one-half miles with more than 250 passageways. A consistent temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit is recorded inside the cave year-round.

Discovered 1820

In the 1840s, the property and bluff where the cave is located was owned by Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, a surgeon and professor of medicine from St. Louis. Dr. McDowell was a very interesting character -- he was referred to in Hannibal as a "resurrectionist", which referred to his propensity for stealing fresh corpses from local cemeteries to use in the study of human anatomy. In 1849, Dr. McDowell's fourteen-year-old daughter died of pneumonia; for some strange reason, the doctor decided to experiment with her body by placing it in the cave in an attempt to study preservation and/or petrification of human remains. Twain writes of Dr. McDowell's experiment in his book Life on the Mississippi:

 

                  In my time the person who owned it [the cave] turned it into a mausoleum for his

                  daughter, aged fourteen. The body of this poor child was put in a copper cylinder

                  filled with alcohol, and this suspended in one of the dismal avenues of the cave.

 

Three years later, Hannibal's sheriff ordered Dr. McDowell to end his experiment after children (possibly even Twain himself) discovered the corpse. She is now interred in the family mausoleum in St. Louis, located in Bellefountaine Cemetery.

Another famous visitor to the cave was the outlaw Jesse James. After robbing a train in nearby Saverton, Missouri in September of 1879, James used the cave as a hideout. While camping there for a few days' rest, James left his autograph, along with the date, on one of the cave's walls. His signature remains to this day.

 

Because of the cool breezes found in the small, shady valley that sits in the shadow of the great bluff, the cave property was a popular site throughout the 19th century for family picnics and church outings in the summertime. After the cave was immortalized in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, tourists from around the world ventured to Hannibal and clamored to see the famous cave. John East, a farmer who lived close to the property, began to offer guided tours of the cave in 1886 with an admission price of ten cents per person. Using only candles or lanterns, East led his guests through the labrynth-style cave to locations made famous in Twain's novel.

A young boy has his portrait made inside the Mark Twain Cave, c1930

Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell

Jesse James

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Mark Twain Cave

Complex website

In 1923, Judge E. T. Cameron purchased the cave property where he had been a guide at the cave as a young man. Cameron was the first to establish specific tour routes in the cave, constructed the first building on the property for ticket sales, and advertised the tour as "Mark Twain Cave". In 1936, electric lighting was added to the cave by the Cameron family.

 

Today, descendants of Judge Cameron continue to own and operate the Mark Twain Cave. Another cave, Cameron Cave, which was discovered by Judge Cameron and his son Arch in 1925, is also open for tours, left in its natural state and only visible by lantern light. The Mark Twain Cave Complex now features a 99-site campground, hiking trails, Village Hollow General Store, Cave Hollow West Winery, Cameron's Candies, Sticks Stones & Bones interactive gem stone shop, and performances of "Mark Twain Live" featuring Jim Waddell.

Judge E. T. Cameron

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