Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Exploring cave history at TSLA

Tennessee is home to the most caves in the United States, so naturally, no pun intended, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) has a wealth of material about Tennessee caves. Just last year, Library Technical Services purchased three books from author and expert caver Marion O. Smith. Smith has been an avid caver for many years, and his adventures have been featured in National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.

Smith’s books describe Confederate saltpeter mining operations in Tennessee, Northwest Georgia, and Alabama during the Civil War. Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, occurs in the dirt of some dry caves and when mixed in proper proportions with sulfur and charcoal, saltpeter forms gunpowder. Caves within the mountains of Tennessee were a significant source of saltpeter for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Opening of Saltpeter Cave, also known as Nickajack Cave, circa 1860s. Engraving. Library Collection, TSLA.

As the federal army secured Confederate ground within Tennessee, Union Private Bliss Morse of the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry recorded his journey through the caves of Tennessee in his dairy, Civil War Diaries & Letters of Bliss Morse, which is also among TSLA’s collection. In the entries below, dated September 2nd, 1863, Morse writes to his mother, telling her about his travels:

I have been today in one of the salt petre caves – which has been worked by the rebel gov’t. The mouth of is fifty feet high and near an hundered long, and it extends in to the mountain several miles. The walls and roof are quite smooth and regular. There is a stream of water which runs through it or in it and the boys sailed a mile or more in it. We had to take torches to light the way. It was very smoky with so many torches burning. We followed the path made with planks over deep chasms to where the salt petre is dug.

Another entry:

I have seen since I left Murfreesboro that which would well pay to make a journey. I have passed over some of the finest mountain scenery in the state, its coal, petre and nitre mines, beside may of its noted springs and caves. Yet we might have looked at them with more pleasure if we had seen them under other circumstances.

The Department of Conservation Photograph Collection also has a wide variety of great photographs of Tennessee caves. For instance, one will find a photograph of Hazard Cave in Pickett State Park taken in 1967, a 1955 Alum Cave Trail photo taken in the Great Smoky Mountains, and a photo of Jewel Cave near Dickson, Tennessee from 1938. This collection even has fascinating pictures of cave blind fish.

In Wayne County, Tenn. this group of individuals poses for a photo in the Court House Cave. Library Collection, TSLA.

Caving is more than a passing interest to many folks. In the words of Mr. Smith, "Even if I'm physically impossible to go in a wild cave, surely I can be put in a wheelchair and wheeled to a commercial cave…And if I can't be sitting up in a cave, surely they can put me on a stretcher and wheel me into one."

Whether you are interested in the beauty, the adventure, or the history hiding in caves, TSLA is the place to begin your own spelunking adventure.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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