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Discovery in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave
On a cool Friday in March 1972, John Wallace checked out his four-seater plane at Atlanta’s Charlie Brown Airport for his flight to Tennessee. The plan was for John’s wife Yolanda, their children Paul and Erica, and Art Smith and Jake Pace to drive to Cumberland Hills State Park in Crossville, Tennessee and rent a cabin for the weekend. My wife, Kathy, our six-year-old daughter, Deanna, and I will fly to Crossville Memorial Airport in Crossville with John, and the next day we will spend a day caving.
We would alternate driving and flying in order to have transportation from the airport to the caves we visited in the Southeast. Half of the people can fly and the other half can drive. The interstate trip was a great one, and we took the state road into Crossville. It was already dark when we arrived, and the lights at the airport were not on yet. The airport is on top of a hill and we were a little worried about finding a place to land. John’s wife was there, but no one at the airport could be reached. John finally managed to contact someone on the radio, and they turned on the lights.
It was a large log cabin in the park where we settled for a night of rest before our next day’s tour. We planned to visit Devils Sink Hole with the family, and then the four of us would explore Grassy Cove on the other side of the mountain. Kathy and Deanna had a great day hiking in the park while we went caving.
A few miles southeast of Crossville is Grassy Cove, a depression between two mountains, which should be a natural lake. Rainwater that falls in the bay flows north into a cave, then gushes from Devils Sink Hole south of the bay and over the mountains. This long mountain contains many caves and a large stream that flows entirely down the mountain. Grassy Cove saltpeter caves are known for their dusty caves, and a dust mask can come in handy to ward off histoplasmosis, a common lung disease found in dusty caves and chicken coops. I did come down later with a light case, which probably came from the cave. The doctor wanted to know if I had been to any chicken coops.
We entered the cave and debated whether to explore the dry passage to the west or venture down the waterfall at the east end of the cave. More caves have been reported beneath the falls. However, ropes were needed and we were not prepared for it. The waterfall room sounded too good to pass up, so we opted to walk down the canyon to the waterfall.
The canyon is a short drop that can be climbed if you extend from the chimney to the narrow part of the drop. However, we chose to use the rope for the fall. We continued to the waterfall room, looking around for any easy clues to move on. John was checking behind a large boulder on the north side of the passage when he noticed air blowing from the rock. We were all excited and started helping with simple digging.
In less than an hour, we saw a small hole that appeared to be opening underneath. I was selected to give it a try, I’m not sure why I was the first, but I’m grateful. I put my feet into the hole first and took off my hard hat so I could squeeze in. At the bottom there was a low crayfish that moved about 50 feet northeast, then a short drop of about 5 feet into a ledge of a great room that sloped down. I studied the floor carefully, but couldn’t make out any marks. I sat there and loudly encouraged others to come down. We discovered a big thing.
When I take my first step on the floor beneath my feet and make my first footprint where no one has ever gone before, I feel like Neil Armstrong on the moon. The top of the mud has a black coating that leaves a very clear orange imprint about 1 inch deep when you lift your foot. It was strange to walk into that huge room and then look back at the lonely footprints that would soon become stale paths.
We explored the 1,000-foot, 60-foot-wide, and 30-foot-high passage for the rest of the day and found that the strata and floors along the western wall were covered with crystal plaster flowers as the ceiling lowered near the end. We crawled through some glitches and ended up in a much smaller room, unable to find a way to proceed.
We are all very excited about our new discovery and plan to return next month to map this new section. On Saturday, April 22, 1972, we returned with the additional help of my wife’s cousin, Bill Meier, and mapped Discovery on March 18. I was working at Eastman Kodak and had access to the latest home movie cameras. I’m trying out a new model with extreme low light capabilities for filming in caves. We used a Coleman Lantern as the light source and set the shutter speed to a slow 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 caving team there about his discovery. Three years later, in 1975, a group of Nashville cavers pushed Georgia Hall to the end and discovered the Nashville Extension, a stream channel that extends the cave far down the mountain. That’s why we went into the cave to see what’s there.
As of late 2013, the largest room in the saltpeter cave at Grassy Cove does not have a name. Since I was the first person to set foot there, I’m happy to name this passageway, which averages 30 feet high, 60 feet wide, and 1,000 feet long, “Georgia Hall.”
Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave is now the 11th longest cave in Tennessee. I think we’re making it easier for future cavers to discover miles and miles of caverns in this big cavern.Major discoveries were made over the next few years, and then in the late 70’s the Great Smoky Mountains closed our little cave with a concrete slab marked “SMG”
1 Blue Spring Cave 33 miles
2 Cumberland Caverns 27 miles
3 Xanadu Cave System 23 miles
4 Rumble Falls Caverns 15 miles
5 Nunley Mountain Cave System 15 miles
6 Big Bone Hole 15 miles
7 Snail Shell Cave System 9 miles
8 meter hole 9 miles
9 Cuyler Cave 8 miles
10 Dunbar’s Cavern 8 miles
11 Grassy Cove 8 miles
12 Wolf River 7 miles
13 Haws Spring Cave 7 miles
14 Zarathustra 7 miles
15 Camps Bay Caverns 6 miles
This is the first major discovery I’ve been a part of and I’m more excited than ever about spelunking and the challenge of exploring and documenting caves with maps, pictures, films and articles.
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