Forget driving all the way out to New Mexico just to stand in line for a chance to walk through Carlsbad Caverns. Come to Townsend, Tn and stroll through Tuckaleechee Caverns beneath the Great Smoky Mountains in what is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the Smokies.
The Tuckaleechee Caverns have been carved over tens of thousands of years and are estimated to be between 20 and 30 million years old. These caverns are made up of formations commonly referred to as “cave onyx.” These are essentially formations of calcium carbonate – the same material that makes up limestone. While it’s beautiful to look at, it’s brittle and will break like glass. The acidic touch of one’s hand to cave onyx would destroy the gloss on it, thus dulling its luster.
It’s formed when surface water combines with carbon dioxide, which is given off by plants, producing a mild carbonic acid. The acid dissolves limestone rock (calcium carbonate) and forms calcium bicarbonate which is soluble in water. This solution seeps down into the cave forming the cave onyx.
It’s widely known that the Cherokee Indians knew of the caverns and hid in them before European settlers discovered them about 1850.
The first white Europeans reached the area in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s. History says that the European descendants discovered the caverns about the middle of the 19th century when sawmill workers watched heavy rain water run into a sink hole in the area. Though the hole had been filled with debris, an opening was found in the rock, thus leading to what is now the entrance of the caverns.
Even prior to the discovery, reports of a cool spot in the valley near a sink hole were prevalent in the area. The year-around, 58-degree temperatures of the Caverns could be felt by anyone standing near the sink hole which later became the entrance to the caverns. It was even said that local residents would take their clothes there to hang in the entrance’s cool breezes. Today, these same breezes are funneled into Tuckaleechee’s gift shop and visitor center in order to air-condition each building.
Officially, the caverns opened tot he public in 1931 before closing due to the Depression. The caverns sat as they were until 1949 when two Maryville College students and Townsend residents, W.E. “Bill” Vananda and Harry Myers, began talking about options in order to open the caverns back up. As boys, Myers and Vananda had spent many a summer day playing at the cavern’s entrance and even exploring its caves.
Following four hard years of labor on construction jobs in Alaska, Vananda and Myers were able to save sufficient funds to open Tuckaleechee back up in 1953 as a tourist attraction.
Almost a year later, the cavern’s Big Room was discovered by members of the National Speleological Society. Headed by Burt H. Denton Jr. of Nashville, the group was part of the Tennessee Geological Cave Survey. The Big Room is more than 400 feet long, 300 feet across, and 150 feet deep. It’s also open to the public and tour guides give hour-long presentations of the cavern. Most come to visit the Big Room and see its stalagmites, which grow up to 24 feet high. On average, the cave sees 50,000 people come through its Big Room each year.