Nested in the limestone hills of southern Indiana is Marengo Cave, one of the most beautiful show caves in the eastern United States. Designated a U.S. National Landmark based on it’s great beauty and extremely large classic trunk passage, Marengo Cave has long been known by speleologists and geologists as one of the midwest’s finest natural wonders. ;xNLx;This underground treasure has slowly been carved out by Nature. It provides a great opportunity for visitors of all ages to experience underground grandeur.
The year 1976 marked the Bicentennial of the United States. Big celebrations were planned all across the country. Marengo Cave was no exception. As it’s part in the celebration, the Cave planned to produce an elaborate sound, light, and slide presentation in Crystal Palace. This became known as the “underground pageant”. The program depicted the history of the United States from Columbus’ landing to Apollo I’s first landing on the moon in 1969. Although the bicentennial celebrations were elaborate, the year 1976 was a “dud” for tourism. It seems that people stayed home that year to avoid what they expected to be huge crowds. Recreation businesses were off in attendance all across the nation.
In 1965, Mrs. Denton turned over direct management to her son-in-law, Jack Hollis. At this time, the cave was back to operating mostly on word-of-mouth advertising. Attendance was usually between 5-10,000 persons each season. The cave was open daily during the summer, weekends in the spring and fall, and closed during the cold months.
Railroad excursions began to decline in popularity during the 1920’s. However some excursions continued until nearly WWII.
Blanche and Orris didn’t mention their discovery until the following Sunday. When Samuel M. Stewart, owner of the property, heard of their discovery, he gathered a group of men and boys from the town and led them into the cave. They found vast passageways and grand splendor such as none of them had ever seen before.
News of the discovery spread quickly and hundreds of citizens from Marengo and the surrounding vicinity proceeded to explore the cavern. Recognizing the commercial value of what had been found, Samuel Stewart opened the cave for public viewing. The Stewart’s initially charged 25 cents per person to see the cave.
The Natural Entrance was always damp, low, some what dangerous, and of course, most people didn’t care for climbing the 156 steps on the way out. To make matters worse, during the wet season, a small stream of water flowed into the sinkhole and down the entrance hole. In 1908, surveyors were tasked with finding a new suitable entrance. A spot was identified where the ceiling of the cave was found to be only eleven feet below the surface. Construction began on the Crystal Palace entrance.
When the new Crystal Palace entrance was opened in 1910, a massive rock wall was built to part way up the Natural Entrance slope to seal off the natural entrance. The old wooden platform over the natural entrance sinkhole was removed and a large stone wall surrounding the natural entrance was torn down by Willie Clifton. Willie used the rock to build the stone retaining wall now located by the old cemetery. Also a new Cave House was erected near the new entrance and the old building at the natural entrance torn down. Later, a large shelter-house was built northwest of the cave entrance, and a fish pond, dance pavilion, and landscaped flower garden were built behind the cave entrance.
Improvements were necessary for commercial touring. Mr. Stewart and his son, Mitch, enlarged the Natural Entrance and constructed 156 wooden steps. The stairs reached from the base to the Natural Entrance slope near Discovery Falls, up around the breakdown, out the entrance and ended around the top of the sinkhole. They also built a large wooden platform and building over the sinkhole. To enter the cave, a trap door in the platform had to be lifted. The relatively level nature of most the cavern made trail building inside the cave easy. Only areas such as Pillared Palace, Sherwood Forest and a few other spots were not accessible after the first few months. Once the improvements were complete, the admission price was raised to 50 cents.
Soon after the cave’s development began, a dispute arose between Samuel Stewart and his brother, Lewis. The natural entrance was located close to the property line between their lands. Lewis figured out part of the cave was under his property. He dug an entrance into the cave using a sinkhole on his land. His entrance came into the Pillared Palace. For a short time, the cave was divided up. Lewis showed the Crystal Palace, Pillared Palace and Queen’s Palace areas that lay under his land. Samuel gave tours of those parts under his land. A wire fence separated the two sections. This solution was unsatisfactory to the brothers, so an agreement was soon reached and the cave resumed operations as before. Lewis’ entrance was permanently closed.
Samuel M. Stewart owned the cave from 1883 until his death in 1895. After his death in 1895, control of the cave passed to his wife, Mary. The cave was managed for her by James M. Weathers, Jr. and was offered for sale.