Not far from the towns of Boone, Blowing Rock, and Asheville, deep inside Humpback Mountain below the Blue Ridge Escarpment, lie Linville Caverns, North Carolina’s only publicly accessible caverns. For 30 million years, as the nearby Catawba River ate away at the valley between the Humpback and Linville mountains, the water-filled caverns have slowly drained from the top.
Linville Caverns were discovered by Henry E. Colton and his local guide, Dave Franklin, in 1822. Mystified by what appeared to be fish swimming out of the mountain, they followed their pine-knot torches into the opening. “Having procured a guide, a little after 9 o’clock we entered the cave, and after proceeding about a quarter of a mile, came to water,” said Colton of the experience in Mountain Scenery, published in 1859.
“Previous to this, nothing of a very remarkable nature had met with, but now began the wondrous splendors of that hidden world. Stooping through a low passage, in which the coldest of water ran rippling and singing a merry song, which echoed back a thousand times from the dark dismal arched roof of the unmeasured space which stretched itself before, behind, and above us, we emerged into an immense passage, whose roof was far beyond the reach of the glare of our torches, except where the fantastic festoons of stalactites hang down within our touch.
“It looked like the arch of some grand old cathedral, yet it was too sublime, too perfect in all its beautiful proportions, to be anything of human, but a model which man might attempt to imitate.”
Legend has it that the caverns were a popular hiding place with soldiers from both sides of the Civil War and a workshop for a resourceful old man who made and mended soldiers’ shoes. Traces of campfires were found in the cavern’s central chambers. Local lure tells that eventually smoke from these fires made it out of the mountainside and so betrayed the soldiers.
Thomas Edison once sent a team of explorers to the caverns hoping to find platinum — an element at the time thought vital in the production of incandescent lamps. They returned empty handed.
John Q. Gilkey bought the property in 1937, built walkways, enlarged the entrance, and opened the doors for tours on July 1, 1939 – one of the cave’s larger chambers is named after him. He only lived another year.
Linville’s formations are a rainbow of hues: iron oxide creates a pinkish orange color; black from manganese; blues from zinc and cobalt, white from calcium carbonate, green from algae and moss.
One of Linville Caverns’ most famous formations, the Wedding Scene, features a shelf-like stage with a priest wearing a long robe. A bride and groom can also be seen kneeling at the altar, all created naturally.
During the winter and early spring the eastern pipistrelle bat hibernates in the cave. The fish living in the cave are speckled, brown, and rainbow trout. None are true cave animals, but only cave visitors.
sources: Mountain Scenery. The Scenery of the Mountains of Western North Carolina
and Northwestern South Carolina, by Henry E Colton, W. L. Pomeroy, 1859