The (accidental) discovery of a lifetime

Posted by | July 22, 2015

Leo Lambert (1895-1955), though trained as a chemist, was an avid cave enthusiast. He was the first person to explore the Tennessee Cave on Mount Aetna (now known as Raccoon Mountain Caverns), and at one time managed the Nickajack Caverns in Marion County, TN. He moved to Chattanooga because his fiancée Ruby Eugenia Losey moved there with her family; they were married in 1916.

It had been 11 years since the Southern Railway had built a railroad tunnel along the face of Lookout Mountain and through some portions of the mountain for one of its lines, a construction project that had permanently sealed a well known natural opening to Lookout Mountain Cave.

Leo & Ruby LambertGiven his knowledge of Tennessee caves, Lambert surely would have been aware of the cave’s colorful history: used first as a campsite by Native Americans, later a hideout for outlaws. During the Civil War, the caverns were used by both Confederate and Union troops. Many soldiers wrote their names and units on the walls. Southern Railway had left in its wake a business opportunity. Lambert decided in 1923 to drill open the cave and become a tour operator.

He formed Lookout Mountain Cave Company and purchased land above the cave. He planned to make an opening further up the mountain than the original natural opening and transport tourists to the cave via an elevator.

In 1928 Lambert selected a site for an elevator shaft into the original cave and began drilling. Midway into drilling the 400-foot elevator shaft, on December 28, a worker operating a jackhammer discovered a void in the rock and felt a gush of air. A small crevice was opened, about 18 inches high and five feet wide.

Opening day poster for Lookout Mountain Cave tourLambert and other corporate officials immediately decided to investigate it and spent 17 hours on this first exploration trip. A passage opened into a falls cave. They came back with a description of a cave with beautiful formations and an amazing 145-foot waterfall, located 260 ft inside Lookout Mountain. The falls flow into a landing pool which drains into the Tennessee River. On his second trip Lambert was accompanied by his wife Ruby. On this trip he named the waterfall – after her – Ruby Falls.

Lambert decided to develop both caves and to offer two cave tours. After 92 days of work, day and night, the elevator shaft reached the original cave. The elevator was installed, paths were prepared, and the original cave opened to the public in 1929. The entrance building, Cavern Castle, looks like a 15th century Irish castle. It was constructed from limestone excavated from the elevator shaft. Development continued in the new cave and in 1930 the second tour to Ruby Falls was opened to the public.

At first the two caverns were shown on separate tours, but the popularity of the falls far exceeded that of the lower cave and that trip was discontinued in 1935.

After years of financial struggle during the Great Depression, the Lookout Mountain Cave Company declared bankruptcy. New ownership launched an aggressive advertising campaign, based on roadside signs, and made Ruby Falls into what is today one of Chattanooga’s major tourist attractions.

Ruby FallsRuby Falls is the largest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States. It and the larger Lookout Mountain Caverns complex have been designated a National Historic Landmark.


sources: “The history of Ruby Falls,” by Ed Brinkley, Service Printing Co; 3rd edition (1980)

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