Underground Town

Mysteries and history at West Virginia’s Organ Cave

We have stopped on the walking path of the Organ Cave near Ronceverte, W.Va., and, strangely, we hear voices. It sounds like both boys and men, chattering above the sounds of rushing waters— like they’re working, telling each other what to do in this underground chamber.

There, just yards from our stance, we can see their ghostly workstation: 150-yearold wooden vats, fixtures here since the Civil War used to collect saltpeter. On this day, we are alone, except for some rare bats and blind trout swishing in the subterranean streams. My tour guide, Phyllis Jones, cannot explain the eerie sound of voices we’re hearing in this cave.

“Maybe it’s just an illusion,” I say but grow cold at the sound of my own words, staring at the rock walls and those old vats, made to look life-like with mannequins dressed as Confederate soldiers, frozen in time.

Organ Cave tops the list of must-sees in the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia, located along U.S. Highway 60 and I-64, just across the Virginia border. It’s a cave that’s been explored for three centuries, since 1704, when West Virginia was still very much a part of Virginia. Now listed on the national historic landmarks register, Organ Cave has been featured on The History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld and took its name from a rock formation that was once played like an organ using rubberized mallets.

Nearby, the artsy town of Lewisburg, W.Va. took its name from Gen. Andrew Lewis (1720–1781), a Revolutionary Organ CaveWar hero who also has his name honored at a historic hotel near the center of Lewisburg. Inviting and eclectic, this town, like the Organ Cave, also has a history that ties to the Civil War, and 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Lewisburg on May 23, 1862. The Greenbrier River Rail Trail starts near Lewisburg and spans 78 miles on a former railbed, closely hugging the banks of the scenic Greenbrier River. That river also shares a name with The Greenbrier, a luxurious resort boasting more than 700 rooms and 6,500 acres. Situated near the heart of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., not far from Ronceverte, The Greenbrier has been a favorite getaway for the well heeled of Washington, D.C. for decades and, in recent years, has added a casino and new restaurant offerings, including The Forum, featuring classic Italian dishes and hand-tossed pizza prepared in a coal-fired oven.

Like the Organ Cave, The Greenbrier’s history reaches to the 1700s, when guests first came to bathe in the spring waters, believed to be a cure for various ailments. In a wooded area, just outside the entrance to the cave, remnants of an old stagecoach road remain, having once been used to carry passengers and mail, from 1822 to 1836, and connecting the Organ Cave to what is now The Greenbrier. Confederates would once use the Organ Cave’s entrance to slip inside and disappear from approaching Union soldiers—warriors who would say, according to legend, that their foes could not be found: It was like the ground would swallow them. Where those soldiers disappeared may, still, be anyone’s guess.

The Organ Cave, after all, stretches further than anyone knows, with about 70 miles of mapped passages yet boasting 200 more leads that have not been mapped or surveyed. At present, Organ Cave stakes claim as the second longest commercial cave on the East Coast, just behind the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky.

Organ Cave was used in the Revolutionary, Civil, and Cold WarsTypically, a cave tour spans about two miles and a couple of hours. It passes stony formations–stalactites, stalagmites, and soda straws—including oddities resembling Scooby Doo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a Christmas tree and Jesus Christ. The adventurous, also, can crawl on their bellies for up to 18 hours in a day for the ultimate “wild cave” tour experience, says Janie Morgan, Organ Cave's owner.

In the American Revolution, Organ Cave was used for storage and refrigeration. Many years later, it became a civil defense shelter during the Cold War, from 1958 to 1962, as the U.S. Government brought in enough supplies—crackers, candy, dehydrated food, medication and water—to care for about 500
people for about two weeks. Yet, when outsiders found out the place had morphine, they broke in and stole it. The cavern’s tour guides, in turn, found the candy and ate it. Now, what’s left of that era are rusting relics—a few big barrels that include instructions saying that, once the container is empty, it can flipped over and used as a commode.

Of all conflicts, the Organ Cave remains most connected to its role in the Civil War, when it supplied saltpeter, the main ingredient in gunpowder. Soldiers here used a pick ax and a wooden paddle to dig saltpeter from the cave floors and walls. Then they used the wooden hoppers, called Vnats for their V-shape, to sift out the cave dirt. Ultimately, saltpeter crystals were loaded up and shipped in sacks to Dublin, Va., then sent by railcars to Augusta, Ga., where the crystals were refined with charcoal and sulphur to make gunpowder.
Organ Cave and Lewisburg are all nestled in the Beautiful Greenbrier Valley
Today, 37 hoppers—made of oak, locust and cucumber wood—remain standing in the Organ Cave, all constructed using a peg-and-hole fashion with very few, if any, nails. This Civil War collection of saltpeter hoppers is believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States. What’s kept them preserved, Morgan says, is the dry climate of the cave. Still, says Jones, there may be no ready answer to explain the ghostly voices. That sound, like all the places this cave reaches, may just remain a mystery.


The Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia boasts great getaways. Have are some contacts:

Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Lewisburg, W.Va.

Greenbrier River Rail Trail

Historic General Lewis Inn
Lewisburg, W.Va.

Organ Cave
Ronceverte, W.Va.

The Greenbrier
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Categories: Weekends