DeSoto Caverns are a series of geologic caves and a tourist attraction
near Childersburg, Alabama.
Located in the foothills of the Appalachian
Mountains, it is touted as "Alabama's Big Cave". In addition to the caves,
the park offers various other attractions, including The Lost Trail Maze,
a three-quarter acre maze, panning for gemstones, wall climb, and amusement
park style rides. While on the caverns tour, visitors can view the Sound,
Light, and Water Show that changes with the holidays and seasons.
Before being commercialized as DeSoto Caverns, the cave was well known locally as Kymulga Cave. There were local legends about the cave being used by Native Americans and as a source of minerals used in the Civil War. It was also said that during WWII, there was a dance floor and honky-tonk in the huge main room. Another legend held that the cave system went miles - from near Childersburg to Talladega.
However, some teenagers climbed, shinnied up, slid on their bellies and crawled through every nook and cranny of the cave and they found only one significant place where the cave continued for any distance beyond the main room. This continuation was on the left side, at the end of the main room, opposite the entrance (which at that time was only a four foot high by by eight foot wide hole in the side of the hill). The cave ends at a blank wall and a small pool of water about two or three hundred yards beyond the main room. With the possible exception of an underwater exit through this pool, to their knowledge and experience, there are no other unexplored routes in the cave.
The main room of the cave is twelve stories high, and larger than a football field. The caverns are noted for one of the largest continuing accumulations of onyx-marble stalagmites and stalactites n the world. DeSoto Caverns has actively growing rock formations (speleothems). For this reason, guests are not permitted to touch almost any rock formations.
A Woodland Indian burial called a "Copena" burial site can be seen in DeSoto Caverns. The word "Copena" comes from the first three letters of copper and the last three letters of galena, two materials commonly found in these burials. Typically, more than one body fills the mound pit along with such burial offerings as a leaf-shaped stone spear point (called a Copena point).
Prior to a typical Copena burial, the Indians placed their dead out on racks in the sun to dry and decay. Birds would eat away the flesh after which the Indians would gather up the bones and carry them in a sack to their ancestral cave. Here, they would cover the sack with clay and bury it in the earth. The Indians believed it was important that each dead person's spirit have the use of his or her limbs, hands, etc., to get around in the afterlife. They also believed the cave was a peaceful and protective environment for the spirits of their ancestors to live on in.
The burial was discovered in 1965 by a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama. It contained the skeletons of five Indians, one of whom was a child. Of special note was the immense jawbone of one of these Indians whom scientists believe was more than seven feet tall. Several years ago, DeSoto Caverns Park officials agreed to allow a group of Native Americans to rebury the remains of these Indians in an undisclosed area of the cave.
The arrival of Hernando DeSoto and his Spanish expedition in 1540 AD marked the beginning of recorded history in Alabama. Spain was the first European nation to discover and claim what is now Alabama, and DeSoto became the first European to explore the interior North American continent. At the time of DeSoto's entrance into America, the Muskogean Indians inhabited almost the entire Southeast.
In Talladega County, where DeSoto Caverns is located, the Coosa Indians represented the Muskogeans. Their capital, also called Coosa, was near what is now Childersburg, just a few miles west of DeSoto Caverns. The Coosa Empire, the first in Alabama's recorded history, extended roughly from Gadsden to Wetumpka, and was on both sides of the Coosa River. Coosa, which means "canebrake," was a city of refuge to the Indians, a city of peace. DeSoto Caverns, just on the outskirts of the Coosa capital, was the ancestral cave.
The DeSoto expedition spent a little over five weeks in the Coosa capital. The mission had two major objectives, to find gold and to establish the first Spanish colony in the New World.
The Coosa Micco (or chief) warmly welcomed DeSoto during a ceremony that took place near the entrance of DeSoto Caverns. The Micco offered DeSoto territory in which to establish a colony, but DeSoto refused because he had come for gold - which he never found in the surrounding territory. In spite of Micco's kindness, DeSoto took him hostage, took slaves from among the Coosa people and raided their storage bins for food on his journey south.
After the Revolutionary War and signing of final treaties with Britain in 1783, America experienced several years of severe growth pains in forming its government. Soon after George Washington's elect as the country's first president in 1789, Benjamin Hawkins was appointed the United States Agent among the Creeks and General Superintendent of all tribes south of the Ohio River.
In December 1796, he visited the Upper Creek territory and in his report to President Washington described the magnificent beauty of DeSoto Caverns. This report makes DeSoto Caverns the first officially recorded cave in the United States.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Childersburg men joined the Confederate Army and the whole community supported the Confederate cause. Toward the end of the war, the Confederate Army encouraged families to mine caves for saltpeter, used in making gunpowder. The situation became so critical that the Army encouraged young men to mine saltpeter rather than enlist. They paid them up to 59¢ per pound for saltpeter. Because of the promise, DeSoto Caverns became a gunpowder-mining center.
Cave soil, often rich in calcium nitrate, called saltpeter, can be processed into potassium nitrate, or niter (KNO3). Niter makes up 75% of what we call gunpowder. The mining of saltpeter required a lot of water, which DeSoto Caverns with its spring-fed well had, in abundance.
A wooden vat was constructed so that when water was added, the soil in the vat became thoroughly saturated. The nitrate-enriched water would filter out the bottom of the vat into a leaching trough. The water was allowed to stand so that the soil's impurities would settle out. The nitrate water was then carried in buckets out of the cave and boiled in large kettles where it was mixed with potash or wood ashes.
This process converted the calcium nitrate into potassium nitrate or niter. Finally, the water was boiled off leaving niter crystals usable, after drying, for making gunpowder. The actual well, leaching trough, and a reconstructed vat used in this operation are on display in the caverns.
In 1912, the caverns were purchased by Mrs. Ida Mathis and a number of friends with the idea of mining the cave for its abundant onyx (a colorful semi-precious stone). Mrs. Mathis was a well- known celebrity throughout Alabama - one of the few nationally recognized women of her time. She traveled throughout the country giving lectures on crop rotation to farmers and was a respected political figure in Washington DC as well as Alabama.
Studies were made and the caverns proved to be a "gold mine" of onyx. All the partners expected to become millionaires from the mining operation. However, Mexican Onyx became popular about this time, and labor costs in Mexico were very low. More extensive studies of the caverns showed that the onyx was not of uniform high grade for mass production. Disappointed, the partners did not pursue their mining interests and the cave lay dormant for several years following.
The 18th Amendment passed in 1919 forbade the manufacture, distribution or sale of liquor in the U.S.A. Liquor was defined as any beverage having 1/2 of 1% alcoholic content by volume. Some men opened the caverns as a moonshine and square dance center with a little gambling thrown in for good measure. Residents soon knew DeSoto Caverns as one of Birmingham area's more rough "speakeasies."
Because of shootings and fights that erupted on a continuing basis, the caverns became known in the early 1920s as "The Bloody Bucket." Soon, however, due to its growing reputation, Federal Agents closed it down. With the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed, but "The Bloody Bucket" was not re-opened.
Throughout the first half-century, DeSoto Caverns was a popular place of exploration for young romantics and teenage spelunkers. In the early 1960s, owners began to develop the caverns into a show cave, which was soon opened to the public. Extensive research into the caverns' history revealed some exciting facts. For example, in 1965, an archaeological excavation undertaken by the University of Alabama unearthed the 2,000 year-old Indian burial now on display in DeSoto Caverns. That same year, the caverns were officially opened to the public.
In 1975 the caverns were renamed DeSoto Caverns in honor of Hernando DeSoto. New modern back lighting was installed, pathways widened and improvements added to facilitate large groups of visitors in safety and comfort. Back areas of the cave never before accessible to visitors were opened in 1980. The 1980s also saw the development of the spectacular Laser Light, Sound and Water Show in the Great Onyx Cathedral along with other new displays to make the caverns' rich historical background come alive for visitors.
In addition to the light show, the tour also provides an example of how dark the cave was to the early explorers who did not have the benefit to artificial lights. The tour guide said the demonstration would only last about 30 seconds or so, but because I sometimes get claustrophobic, it seemed like it was hours. But, once the lights came back on, it was FUN, I think.
DeSoto Caverns was listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage on July 19, 1976.
DeSoto Park has something for all ages. Camping facilities were enlarged and updated. The park continued to add exciting new attractions, including DeSoto's Wall Climb, Gemstone Panning, Dinosaur Dig, and Water Dodge. Its Shipboard Playground has a 3,000-square-foot natural log cabin gift shop with mission-style bell tower.
A few miles east of Childersburg on Hwy 76
Monday - Saturday 9am - 5:30pm
Sunday 1pm - 5:30pm
5181 Desoto Cavers Pkwy
Childersburg, Alabama 35044