Marengo Cave's Historical Timeline

A historical overview of the discovery of Marengo Cave and all the happenings since

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.

1700-01-06 00:00:00

Early Trappers and Settlers

Early trappers and explorers visited and established small outposts in Indiana during the 1700’s. However, large scale migration of setters into the area did not begin until after the Revolutionary War. The area near the cavern which is now a part of Crawford County began to be settled just after 1800. Most settlers came from North Carolina and Kentucky, crossing the Ohio into the Indian Territory of southern Indiana.

1814-01-01 00:00:00

Land Deeded to Hollowell

In July of 1814, most of what was to become the “Old Town” section of Marengo was deeded by the United States to Henry Hollowell.

1817-01-01 00:00:00

Stewarts Buy Land

In 1817, David Stewart bought out Hollowell. The Stewart family and their heirs were to remain in control of this land and the cave, as yet undiscovered, until 1955.

1839-01-01 00:00:00

Stewarts Plots a Town

In 1839, David Stewart laid out the plot for a town. It went by various names during its early history including Procterville, Springtown, and Big Springs.

1852-01-01 00:00:00

Marengo's Name Official

The town's name is finally settled as Marengo for the post office in 1852. Marengo was the name of a famous battle fought by Napoleon near the town of Marengo, Italy on June 14, 1800.

1858-01-01 00:00:00

Town Church Built

The Marengo church was build in 1858.

1869-01-01 00:00:00

The Marengo Academy

In 1869, Marengo became an educational center for the hill country of south central Indiana when Professor J.M. Johnson and the townspeople built the Marengo Academy. The Academy was a center of education for over forty years. Because of the rough dirt roads, which were often impassible in winter, students from outside the immediate area had to board during the school term. The Academy, due to its excellent reputation, attracted several boarding students from communities throughout the surrounding hill area.

1881-01-01 00:00:00

Railroad Jumpstarts County

Prior to the coming of the railroad in 1881, Marengo was just a cluster of log cabins, one or two stores, a saloon, a meeting house or two and a graveyard. With the completion of the Louisville & St. Louis Airline Railroad, the business district and main part of town shifted about half a mile south adjacent to the new railroad depot. After the railroad bisected Crawford County east to west, commerce in the county began to shift away from the Ohio River towns of Leavenworth and Alton to the growing railroad centers of Milltown, Marengo and English.

1882-01-01 00:00:00

Timbering Near the Cave

During the year or so before the discovery of the cave, most of the virgin timber on the hillside surrounding the cave entrance was logged. Mitch Stewart and the early geologists who visited the cavern theorized that the increased runoff from the hillsides into the sinkhole was a primary factor in opening a human-sized hole in the bottom of the sink.

1883-01-01 00:00:00


There is no documented evidence that man ever entered Marengo Cave before its discovery on Thursday, September 6, 1883. Curiously, though, there are some broken formations cemented into the flowstone at several places in the cavern. The cavern is located near the small community of Marengo, which had been homesteaded over sixty years earlier without the cave being discovered. This suggests that there was no cavity large enough for the cave to be entered before 1883. Whether Indians ever entered the cave hundreds or even thousands of years ago through some now closed opening will probably never be determined for sure.

1883-09-01 00:00:00


In September of 1883, Blanche Hiestand, a fifteen year old girl, was working as a cook at the boarding school during the fall Normals. She overheard some of the students at the school discussing a hole they had found about half a mile east of the Academy at the base of a deep sinkhole depression. The boys were planning a trip to see if there was a big cave inside the hole or just a pocket. Blanche felt her adrenaline begin to flow as she listened to their plans. She decided she would get there before the boys could. That afternoon after work she raced to her home about a quarter mile away, hastily recruited her brother Orris, (who was only 11 at the time) grabbed some candles and snuck out of the house - so their parents wouldn’t stop them from their adventure. To reach the sinkhole, they had to cross Whiskey Run Creek, pass the two large springs and hike up the hill to the town meeting house (church) and cemetery. Just above the cemetery was a grove of trees surrounding the deep sinkhole. As they climbed down to the bottom of the depression, they could see a small opening in the rocks on the southeast side. It was partially hidden by dangling tree roots. Cool air was streaming out from the opening. They paused to light their candles. Blanche dropped to her belly covering the front of her long dress with damp mud as she tried to peer into the opening. She could barely see the slope of loose rock descending into the darkness. Her heart pounding with excitement, she crawled down into the opening with her back nearly scraping the rock above. Quickly, she was able to get up on her hands and knees as she followed the slope down. She yelled back at Orris, “Come on in! It’s getting bigger.” Together, they carefully climbed down the steep slope of broken rock. This rock had fallen long ago when the ceiling of the cave had collapsed to form the sinkhole. The rock was slick and water was dripping down from numerous small openings in the ceiling. As they continued downward, they were soon able to stand up as they scrambled down the breakdown. They could hear water falling from the ceiling and sparkling formations were visible ahead in the distant darkness. The floor was becoming more level as they began to enter a large chamber. They were only about a hundred feet below the surface, but to the two youngsters it seemed a long way. They quickly looked around the room. It was very big! They could barely see the far wall with their flickering candles. There were large glistening mounds of “pretty rock” and large carrot-like pendants hanging down. The room appeared to continue in several different directions. Pools of crystal clear water covered the floor behind delicate natural rock dams. By now their courage was gone. They were awed by the huge chamber they had found. The beauty was overwhelming, even in the dim candlelight, but they were alone and no one knew where they were. So, they decided to turn back. They scrambled back up the slope toward the sinkhole. It was harder climbing back up. The slimy mud began covering their clothes and the slick rocks slid under their muddy shoes. The mud was cold. By the time they squeezed out the low slot into the bottom of the sink, they were a mess. It was a great relief to stand up outside, see the sky and feel the warmth of the late summer sun.

1883-09-09 00:00:00

Property Owner Told

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.

1883-10-19 00:00:00

Officially Opened

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.

1883-11-08 00:00:00

Commercial Upgrades

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.

1884-04-09 00:00:00

Brotherly Dispute Arises

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.

1885-01-27 00:00:00

First Fraternal Meeting Held

The cave has been used at various times for many meetings and church services. A large upper chamber is known as Elk’s Hall because it has been the site of many fraternal meetings. The first meeting was held by the Louisville, Kentucky Order #8 on September 27, 1885. For many years, a large set of elk antlers graced the wall of the room.

1895-09-04 00:00:00

Cave For Sale

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.

1899-09-07 00:00:00

Cave Divided Amongst Heirs

Mary died in 1899. Since the cave had not sold, it's control was divided among ten heirs.

1900-01-04 00:00:00

Marengo Cave Company Established

The Marengo Cave Company incorporated in 1900. It provided a framework for the heirs to manage the cave. Each family member owned various amounts of stock and every year had the opportunity to bid a percentage of the gross income for the right to operate the cave. Samuel M. Stewart (Mitch), with the same name as his father, was selected as the first manager. He was to receive 35% of the gross and to pay all expenses out of his percentage.

1907-12-10 21:24:45

The Marengo Cave Band

Often a volunteer band of local men would greet the cave visitors with a concert underground at the Natural Bandstand in Music Hall.

1908-09-01 00:00:00

New Entrance Needed

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.

1909-01-01 00:00:00

Rail Increases Attendance

Business at the cavern increased slowly throughout the early 1900’s. Travel to the cavern was still difficult by road. During the first twenty years of the century, most visitors still came by railroad. The Louisville, Evansville & St. Louis Airline Railroad ran frequent excursion trains out of Louisville, Evansville, and sometimes even St. Louis. As many as four or five coaches arrived regularly on weekends at the depot. Towns’ people and local farmers would bring their wagons to the depot. For a small fee, they would transport visitors a mile or so to the cave grounds. After touring the caverns, visitors would be brought over to the Murphy House Hotel for their famous chicken dinners, then board the train for the trip home.

1909-08-11 06:20:25

The First Wedding

The first documented wedding was held in the cave in the Music Hall. Mabel and Ernest Luts of Boonville, Indiana were married and smoked their names on the wall of the cave near Washington Avenue. Most subsequent weddings have been held in the Crystal Palace where there is seating for guests. There's a saying that goes, “This is running marriage into the ground.” The cave has also been a favorite for honeymooners. Present day hundreds tour the cave each year.

1910-01-06 00:00:00

Crystal Palace Entrance Opens

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.

1911-01-05 00:00:00

Under New Management

Samuel M. Stewart (Mitch) operated the cave until 1911, when J.M. Weathers, Jr. again took over.

1912-01-18 00:00:00

For Sale Again

In 1912, the board of directors voted to sell the cave. Although J.M. Weathers, Jr. was interested in buying it, the cave wasn't sold. Charles Fitzgerald, a lawyer from Louisville who had married Minnie Weathers, began buying up stock in the Cave Company and eventually gained a controlling interest in the cave.

1912-07-10 06:20:25

Visitors Double Population

During the early years of its history, the cave played a major part in the social life of the local community; especially on the days when the excursion trains arrived from the big cities. Old newspaper clippings tell us that on the last Sunday in July of 1912, six hundred people arrived from French Lick, West Baden and Evansville by train. They more than doubled the population of the town for a few hours.

1913-06-12 00:00:00

"Willie" Clifton Hired

In 1913, J.M. Weathers, Jr. hired William (Bill) Clifton to work as a guide. Bill, or “Willie” as many called him, was to become caretaker of the cave, and work over 52 years as a guide.

1918-06-13 00:00:00

Welcome Back Mitch

In 1918, J.M. Weathers, Jr. passed away and Mitch Stewart again became the manager of the cave. It was during this reign of management he became known as “Uncle Mitch”.

1922-01-11 00:00:00

Cave Sermons

In the early 1920’s, a local preacher used Pulpit rock for sermons on Sunday afternoons.

1923-06-14 00:00:00

Additional Improvements

A cistern with an elaborate piping system was built to bring water from a small spring located about 1000 feet up the hill from the Cave House. Before this time, the only water source at the cave was an old crock placed under a small waterfall near Mt. Vesuvius in the cave. The first electric lights were installed in the Crystal Palace. This was the only room that was wired. Lanterns were used throughout the rest of the cave. A huge turret and searchlight was mounted in the Queen’s Palace area and used to pan over the splendor of Crystal Palace. With this major improvement in place, the admission price was raised to $1.00 per person.

1924-08-19 00:00:00

Pulpit Rock Dedicated

Due to past sermons, a dedication service was held on August 19,1924 and a marble plaque cemented into the front of the rock. Bishop H.H. Fout, head of the Indiana Conference of United Brethren, dedicated the preaching rock as “Pulpit Rock”.

1925-06-16 00:00:00

Railroad Visitors Decline

Railroad excursions began to decline in popularity during the 1920’s. However some excursions continued until nearly WWII.

1929-02-05 00:00:00

Great Depression Hits

Charles Fitzgerald ran the cave during the Great Depression. Despite business declining sharply, word-of-mouth advertising about the beauty of Marengo Cave supplied enough customers to keep the doors open. Many other show caves were forced to close permanently or at least temporarily during the depression.

1929-06-13 00:00:00

Land Dispute #2

A property dispute erupted between John E. (Ed) Ross and the Cave Company. Years earlier, Mitch Stewart had told Ross that several rooms in the cavern lay underneath Ross' property, but that the Cave Company wasn’t using them. By 1929, Charles Fitzgerald had taken over management of the cave and decided he wanted to buy the underground rights to Ross’s land. Ross agreed but wanted a survey completed first. At the last minute, Fitzgerald decided not to allow a survey. Ross filed a suit in court to force the survey.

1932-06-15 00:00:00

Court-ordered Survey

Over 3 years after the initial dispute, a court-ordered survey was performed. The survey showed that roughly 700 feet of cave passages lay under Ross’s property. This fueled for the dispute for years to come and would wind up all the way to the Supreme Court of Indiana before it was resolved.

1937-06-16 00:00:00

Supreme Court of Indiana Rules

After some appeals, the court case made its way to the Supreme Court of Indiana, which decided in Ross’s favor in 1937. The Cave Company claimed a right to use the cave through what is called “Adverse Possession”, since they had controlled the cave for 46 years (1883- 1929). The court ruled otherwise. The case has become well-known as one of the leading national “Adverse Possessions” cases, and is studied by thousands of law school students each year. Modern property scholars think the decision was wrong. Ross, however, stood by his principles and a fence was built between the two sections underground. No deal was ever made with the Cave Company and his section remained closed until Ross’s death in 1972.

1939-01-03 19:55:11

World War II

Charles Fitzgerald ran the cave during WWII.

1946-02-13 00:00:00

Under New Management

Shortly after the WWII Fitzgerald became ill and his son-in-law, Wilbur Lindley, took over the management of the cave.

1955-05-11 06:20:25

Mr. Denton Buys the Cave

Wilbur Lindley managed the cave until June of 1955 when Floyd Denton, a well-known local businessman, purchased the cave. Floyd sold his local drug and appliance store in Marengo to buy the Cave Company's stock from the various heirs. He had big plans for the cave and immediately set out to accomplish them. Floyd also hired a local electrician to light the entire cave and began to actively promote the cave for the first time in years.

1955-05-11 06:20:25

New Gift Shop Added

A new ticket office and gift shop was built to replace the rundown clapboard Cave House built in 1910.

1958-05-15 06:20:25

State Park Plans Nixed

Floyd approached the State of Indiana about purchasing the cave for a state park in 1958. State parks employees were interested, but rumor has it that politics became involved and a prominent area citizen with ties to the other party nixed the deal.

1960-05-12 06:20:25

Dreams End Abruptly

Unfortunately, Floyd Denton didn’t live to see his dreams for the cave fulfilled. He died in June after suffering either a stroke or heart attack while working on the Queen’s Palace glitchy lighting system. Floyd’s plans for development, which included overnight cabins and restaurants, were not shared by his wife Lucille, who took over the cave's management after his death. Though Mrs. Denton had never been in favor of Floyd purchasing the cave, she did hire a local electrician, Wilbert Jones, to redo the whole system. This second wiring job worked much better. She also tried to fulfill her late husband's request that the cave be offered for sale to the State of Indiana as a state park. Mrs. Denton and several local groups worked to get the state to purchase the cave. The State Department of Conservation actively pursued the purchase and requested funds from the legislature; however, it was never high enough on the priority list to receive funding and the opportunity passed.

1963-06-16 00:00:00

"Willie" Celebrates 50

A special day was held in “Willie's” honor to celebrate his 50th anniversary. It received wide newspaper coverage throughout the southern Indiana area.

1963-08-13 06:20:25

Cuban Missile Crisis

1963 Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, a big push to develop a system of civil defense shelters was initiated throughout the United States. In 1963, Marengo Cave was designated as a shelter for up to 435 persons. Government engineers limited the number despite the immense interior dimensions of the cave because of the small entrance to the cavern. Plans were made to store supplies in the cavern, but they were never actually placed in the cave.

1965-05-12 06:20:25

Under New Management

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.

1965-06-10 00:00:00

"Willie" Retires

Bill (Willie) Clifton may have walked more miles underground than any person in history, either before or since. Willie was a guide for over fifty years at Marengo Cave. He preferred the title “caretaker”. As a young man Willie traveled all over working at various jobs until he came to work at the cave in 1913 at the ripe old age of 27. Willie estimated he walked 75-80,000 miles underground during his career. Willie was almost always on duty. Before the purchase of the cave by Floyd Denton in 1955, a bell was kept outside the Cave House. When visitors came during the off season or after hours, they would ring the bell. Willie would walk up from his house, located only 200 yards from the cave, and take them through the cave. Willie loved the cave and prided himself on knowing everything about it. His wife Mary said, “The cave was his life.” He loved music and often sang for visitors during his tours. He always had a place in the cave to play music on the speleothems during the tour. At various times during his tenure, he played the fluted pipes of the Pipe Organ in Crystal Palace, climbed a wooden ladder to play the Chimes on the Palisades or struck the folding draperies near the Elephant’s Head. He would carefully tap the various speleothems with a small wooden mallet to elicit different notes. It is said he practiced for a cave wedding (held early in his career) for many hours in the cave at night after work to master playing several wedding songs on the formations. Willie only made ten dollars a week the majority of his career. Once he had an opportunity to go to work for Wyandotte Cave, for more money, but he wouldn’t leave because Mr. Fitzgerald, manager of the cave, needed him. Even in the 1960’s after more than 50 years of service, he never made over twenty-some-odd dollars per week, but he loved his work. Willie continued to work until 1965 when he was forced to retire just short of his eightieth birthday. Everyone thought he was getting too old to guide. However, he fooled them by living another 16 years. Willie’s last trip through the cave he loved was in 1973 at age 88. He died at age 95 in 1980 - a legend in his own time.

1966-05-02 06:20:25

Expansion vs. Swimming Pool

Jack Hollis continued to manage the cave and periodically Lucille Reimund (Mrs. Denton was now remarried to Harold Reimund) offered the cave for sale. They discussed trying to buy the Ross Section of the cave several times, but decided it would be too expensive to develop as the Ross section was very damp and muddy. Much backbreaking labor and a lot of lighting expense would be necessary to make this part of the cave appealing to visitors. Eventually they opted to spend add a swimming pool instead.

1966-07-13 06:20:25

State Highway 64

A new park entrance road was bulldozed along the hillside above Whiskey Run Creek. This new entrance road provided direct access to the newly completed State Highway 64 and eliminated the need for the narrow winding “Old Town” road. The owners thought people driving into the park on the new road and would be so impressed by the pool that it would encourage them to visit the cave also.

1969-07-23 06:20:25

Pool Leased to Ousiders

As it turned out, the pool was never profitable and after a year or so was leased to outsiders, so that the cave owners didn’t have the hassle of running it. Many years later the pool was again run by the cave for groups only. However, it eventually closed and was filled in.

Marengo Cave's Historical Timeline

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