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Discovery in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave
On a cold March Friday in 1972, John Wallace checked into his four-seater plane at Charlie Brown Airport in Atlanta for a flight to Tennessee. John’s plan was to drive up to Cumberland Mountain State Park in Crossville, Tennessee and rent a cabin for the weekend for his wife Yulanda and their children Paul and Erica and Art Smith and Jack Pace. My wife Kathy, our six-year-old daughter, Deanna, and I will go with John to Crossville Memorial Airport in Crossville, and we’ll spend the next day caving.
We will alternate driving and flying from the airport to the caves we visit in the southeast. Half the group would fly and the other half would drive. The trip was great along the interstate and then we followed the state road to Crossville. It was dark when we arrived and the airport lights were not on. The airport is on top of a hill and we were a bit nervous about finding a place to land. John’s wife was there but could not contact anyone at the airport. Finally someone radioed John and they turned on the lights.
It was a large cabin in the park and we settled in for a good night’s rest before the next day’s hike. We planned to visit Devil’s Sink Hole as a family and then the four of us would explore the Grassy Cove saltpeter cave on the other side of the mountain. Kathy and Deanna had a lovely day walking around the park while we went to the cave.
A few miles southeast of Crossville lies Grassy Cove, a depression between two mountains that should by all rights be a large natural lake. Rainwater that falls into the creek flows north into the cave, then south of the creek and up the mountain into Devil’s Sink Hole. This long mountain has many caves and a large stream that flows completely under it. Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave is famous for being a dusty cave and dust masks are handy to prevent histoplasmosis, a lung disease common in dusty caves and chicken houses. I later came down with a light hair of this and it must have come from this cave. The doctor wanted to know if I had been around the chicken houses.
We entered the cave and debated whether to explore the dry passage to the west or head to the waterfall at the east end of the cave. It was said that there are more caves below the waterfall. However, a rope would be needed and we were not ready for that. The water fall room seemed too good to go up so we opted to go down the pass and go to the water fall.
A Chasm is a small drop that can be climbed if you chimney up to the narrow part of the drop. We however chose to use a rope for the drop. We went down to the waterfall room and walked around looking for any easy lead to continue on. John was checking behind a large rock on the north side of the passage when he noticed air blowing through the rocks. We all got excited and started helping to dig easily.
In less than an hour we found a small hole that seemed to open below. I chose to try this, I’m not sure why I was the first but I was thankful. To squeeze in, I took off my hard hat and stepped foot first into the hole. At the bottom was a low crag that went northeast about 50 feet and then a ledge with a small drop of about 5 feet to a large room turned downward. I study the floor and can’t make out any tracks. I sat there encouraging others to come down. We had found something big.
When I first stepped onto the floor below, I felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon and where no one had stepped before. There was a black coating on top of the mud and when you lifted your foot it left a very clear orange impression about 1 inch deep. It felt strange to walk into that vast room and then look back at the lone footprints that would soon be a well-placed one.
We spent the rest of the day exploring a passage one thousand feet sixty feet wide and thirty feet high, with formations along the west wall and crystal gypsum flowers covering the ground as the ceiling dropped near the end. We ended up crawling through some breakdowns in a small room and couldn’t find any way forward.
We were all very excited about our new find and planned to go back to map this new section next month. We returned on Saturday, April 22, 1972, with additional assistance from my wife’s cousin, Bill Meyer, and mapped the March 18 discovery. I was Eastman Kodak Co. at the time. Worked for and had the latest home movie cameras. I was trying out a new model with very low light capabilities for filming in a cave. We used a Coleman lantern for the light source and slowed down the shutter speed to capture as much light as possible. These short films can be viewed on my caving website.
When Jack Pace moved to Nashville, he told the cave group there about the discovery. Three years later in 1975, a group of Nashville cavers pushed through the tip of the Georgia Room and discovered the Nashville Extension, a flow path that extended the cave under the mountain. This is why we go into caves, see what is there.
As of late 2013, the largest room in the Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave remains unnamed. As I was the first man to set foot there, I am happy to name the passage, which averages thirty feet high by sixty feet wide and a thousand feet long, the “Georgia Room.”
Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave now ranks eleventh in the state of Tennessee for longest cave. I think we’ve made it a little easier for future leavers to explore the miles of cave in this great cave. Larger discoveries were made in the years that followed, and then in the late 70s Smoky Mountain Grotto closed our little hole with a slab of concrete marked “SMG.”
1 Blue Spring Cave 33 mi
2 Cumberland Caverns 27 mi
3 Xanadu Cave System 23 miles
4 Rumbling Falls Cave 15 mi
5 Nunley Mountain Cave System 15 mi
6 Big Bone Cave 15 miles
7 Snail Shell Cave System 9 mi
8 Rice Cave 9 miles
9 Cuellar Caves 8 miles
10 Dunbar Cave 8 mi
11 Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave 8 mi
12 Wolf River 7 mi
13 Hose Spring Cave 7 mi
14 Zarathustra 7 mi
15 Camps Gulf Cave 6 mi
This was the first major discovery I was involved in and I am more excited than ever about caves and the challenge of not only exploring but documenting caves with maps, pictures, films and articles.
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