Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
Being a former resident of Schoharie County, and twice a visitor
to Howe's Cave, once while in junior high school and once when returning
home with my new wife from California in 1974, you can imagine my
pleasure when I came upon this passage in an old book hidden on
a dusty shelf at an estate sale.
The passage is drawn from the April 1857 edition of NATIONAL MAGAZINE.
It has been transcribed exactly as I found it word for word with
all the spellings and punctuation of the period.
For more information on Howe's Cave might I suggest a book by
local author Dana Cudmore, titled, The Remarkable Howe Caverns
Story, The Overlook Press, 1990.
A very early lithograph of
the original cave entrance, Cobleskill, NY.
From the Land-Sea Discovery Group Collection.
Cave, situated in Schoharie County, New York, on the banks of
the Cobleskill Creek, and two miles from the Schoharie River,
was discovered about twelve years ago by Mr. Lester Howe, a Yankee,
who has since kept a hotel for the entertainment of visitors to
his under-ground possessions. The region of the country in which
the cave is situated is nearly barren of attractive features,
presenting numerous pits and holes filled or partly filled, with
loose stones, and resembling in some sort, as have been fancifully
said, a face damaged by the small-pox.
Opening upon the road that winds among these uninviting hollow's,
the traveler is very glad to see a rude gate having "Howe's
Cave" painted in great letters upon one of its bars, and
still more glad, when, having turned aside from the main road
and crossing a little strip of smiling landscape, he alights at
the door of the Mineral Hotel, and receives the friendly hospitalities
of the great cave explorer. As a first item of preparation for
the dark journey, he invariably recommends an internal fortification,
and as the best stimulus towards compliance, presents an array
of coffee, beefsteaks, custard pies, and preserved fruits, before
which the curiosity of the most inveterate adventurer is apt to
subside for a time. Indeed, the imagination is delightfully feasted
with some of the accounts of the cream-cakes, berries, and fat
chickens to be found at the Mineral Hotel. So excellent a landlord
is of course furnished with wardrobes containing such equipment
as the law of the cave directs, jackets and trousers of coarse
sacking, and a skull-cap of leather, for purple and fine linen
are not suitable articles for the drawing-rooms of the nether
In one of the narratives of an expedition to this cave there is
a particular description of the appearance which the platoon presented,
and they are said to have lamented exceedingly their inability
to send home to wives and daughters daguerreotypes taken in the
uniforms worn on the occasion and thus have suggested a new study
on the "Philosophy of clothes."
Lamps, luncheon, and matches are also a part of the necessary
furniture of an expedition. At the time of the discovery of the
cave the entrance to it was so small as to oblige all visitors
to drag themselves through it, lengthwise along the ground, after
the manner of our ancient enemy. Since them the inconvenience
has been obligated by blasting rocks and removing the broken pieces,
a work which may be supposed, not only to have startled the ancient
echoes form their sleep, but that also
terrific spirits bred
In the sea- caverns, moved by those fierce jars,
Rose up like giants from their watery bed,
And shook their silver hair against the stars.
now from out of the watery floor
A city rose, and well she wore
Her beauty and stupendous walls,
And towers that touch'd the stars, and halls
Pillow'd with whitest marble, whence
Palace against bright palace sprung,
An over all a green roof hung."
Since the early settlement of the part of Schoharie County in
which the celebrated cavern is situated, it has been know, says
one who has furnished some interesting particulars concerning
it, that there was a spot somewhere along the ledge of rocks,
north of Cobleskill, from which issued a strong current of air,
so cold and strong, indeed that in summer it chilled the hunter
as he passed near it. It was familiarly called "The Blowing
Rock," and no persons ventured to remove the underbrush and
rubbish that obscured the entrance, lest some hobgoblin, wild
beast, or "airy creature of the elements," should pounce
upon him as its legal prey. When Mr. Howe took up his residence
in the neighborhood he heard of the existence of this singular
rock, and with a curiosity characteristic of his race, determined
to visit it, which determination he carried into execution
found the fact as stated, and upon removing the underbrush, discovered
a gap, some four feet square, from which proceeded a current of
cold air, plainly perceptible at a distance of several rods. Satisfied
of the existence of a cavern, he returned the following day with
a friend, lights, pick-axes, etc., and creeping through the narrow
entrance, penetrated a considerable distance:
"Alone withouten any company."
low dark rounds the arches hung,
From the rude rocks the sidewalls sprung,
The stones with mildew gathering o'er,
That mortal footsteps wore,
Were all the pavement of the floor."
his observations uninterrupted by hobgoblins, or any or any other
thing more formidable than
Echo, sweetest nymph that liv'st unseen
Within her airy shell,
By slow meanders margent green,
And in the violet-embroider'd vale
Where the love-born nightingale
Nightly to hear her sad song mourneth well,"
renewed his visits from one time to another, each visit penetrating
a little further, and making some new discovery, until finally,
having explored the distance of a mile, his progress was interrupted
by a lake of water. Not discouraged, however, he collected materials,
constructed a boat, and had ere long the satisfaction of crossing
the water and penetrating five miles beyond, still leaving "much
land to be possessed."
The opening of the cave, now sufficiently wide and high to admit
the tallest person walking in erect, is approached by a gradual
decent, and having entered, the beginning of a world of wonders
presents itself. A short distance from the mouth the passage widens
to a breadth of fifty feet, but does not materially increase in
height, and the roof, which seems to be the segment of a large
circle, is smooth and even. For the next quarter of a mile the
ceiling descends so low as to oblige the visitor to double himself
down, and proceed slow and at a shambling pace. At the end of
that distance the roof curiously and abruptly rises to a great
height, and widens into what is called the Chapel. The name is
not inappropriately derived from a beautiful combination of stalactites
resembling an alter, and overhung with a drapery, fluted and fringed
in a style of royal magnificence. Immediately above this alter
is a conical opening in the roof, twenty or thirty feet across
at the base, and of such immense height that no number of torches
can more than partially illuminate it.
A good many similar openings are to be seen in different portions
of the cave, and Mr. Howe has not inappropriately christened them
belfries. Depending from the edges of some of these belfries are
fringes of stalactites, and other fantastic ornaments, which require
to be seen in the full glitter of the torch- lights to be appreciated,
as written description falls immeasurably sort of the reality.
Besides the alter, the chapel contains another curious formation
of stalactites called the epaulet, from its striking resemblance
to that soldierly appendage; none, however, but a giant could
support its weight.
The "Gallery" presents few attractions; not enough,
indeed, to compensate for the trouble of an exploration, which
can only be effected by stooping, walking on the hands and knees,
and in some parts even dragging the slow length along, in inglorious
likeness of the ancient beast, so narrow is the space between
floor and ceiling.
Many a forlorn adventurer has been led to believe, as he wriggled
through this damp darkness, flattening himself between the stony
roof and floor, that "night and shade had joined with hell
in triple knot against his unarmed weakness," and to put
unction, elsewhere undreamed of, in the spirits soliloquy:
so esteemed by shallow ignorance,
"I tell you 'tis not vain or fabulous,
What the sage poets taught by th' heavenly muse,
Storied of old in high immortal verse,
Of dire chimeras and enchanted isles,
And rifted rocks, whose entrance leads to hell."
this gap, or gallery, as it is called, there is a continuous draught
of air, very cold, and so strong as to make it almost impossible
keep the torches alive; some of them are always extinguished in
every exploration, and too much precaution cannot be taken in
regard to them, as the adventurer, who here loses his "upright
shape, and downward falls into a groveling swine," cannot
swift sparkle of a glancing star
To shoot from heaven, and give him safe
Convoy out of the awful labyrinth."
danger of this passage has hitherto begotten caution, and no fatal
accidents have taken place.
The path beyond this gallery is comparatively easy for the distance
of a quarter of a mile, but as the lake is approached the ground
is strewn with fragments of rocks that have fallen from the roof,
and some caution has to be observed in order to the maintenance
of an upright position.
The lake is situated at a distance of nearly a mile from the entrance
of the cave, and Mr Howe has always in readiness a substantial
boat for the convenience of visitors, which is arranged with the
kindliest of regard to their comfort, for he feels a commendable
pride in whatever pertains to his subterranean domains.
The boat is rowed across the water in a few minutes, the lake
being only about fifty feet wide; its depth is some twelve feet.
There is no danger whatever in the passage, as the lowest projections
of the rocks still leave sufficient room for those being ferried
across to retain their upright position.
Following the main avenue of the cave for about a mile beyond
the further shore of the lake, the visitors attention is arrested
by a rumbling noise like the sound of distant thunder, and he
presently discovers an opening in the rocks at the left hand,
passing through which and journeying forward, the roar increases
in volume until it becomes almost deafening, and presently he
discovers that he is standing on the level with the top of a cataract,
which tumbles, and groans, and breaks itself into pieces on the
rocks below with a momentum that shakes the very foundations of
the cavern. Not withstanding the crash and dash of the water,
there is said to be a soothing charm in its noise, and the traveler
is apt to linger as if
murmurs of the wandering wave
Seem'd to his ear the pity of a friend."
main passage of the cave presents the appearance of a long and
spacious hall, occasionally widening out into ample rooms. Besides
the main avenue there are innumerable side passages of greater
or lesser extent, many of which have only been partially explored.
It is known, however, that many of them branch out into what appears
to be interminable distance, presenting a broad field for the
inquiries of the curious. One of the largest of these side rooms
is called the cotton factory. A stream of considerable size runs
through it, and the roar of another one some half a mile distant
is heard very distinctly. The sensation of the visitor is similar
to that he experiences in witnessing the gathering of the most
terrible storm, so awfully grand are the reverberations.
One of the passages winds for a long distance on the margin of
a small stream, which has not been explored to its termination,
but which, so far as it has been explored, abounds with curiosities
in the shape of stalactites and stalagmites, some of them of such
gigantic dimensions as to make the journey among them almost impractical.
Most of these formations are suspended form the roof; some of
them sufficiently high to offer no obstruction to the traveler,
but others descending so low as to make it difficult even to crawl
A most agreeable music may be obtained by playing upon these columns
as upon an instrument, and a singer, by ingeniously regulating
his strokes, may accompany himself very admirably, and produce
music, which all the artificial instruments in the world cannot
equal, as has been said by those who have heard it. There is a
clear ringing silverness about it that no other sound, or combination
of sounds, come anywhere near producing. Perhaps some melodious
genius may catch here some ideas, the embodiment of which shall
command the admiration of the world.
A circuitous path, which obliges the visitor to sometimes stoop
and sometimes to creep, conducts to a large apartment running
up into a towering dome. One of the ornament s of this chamber
is an exceedingly large stalagmite in the form of a pyramid, of
a yellowish color, and presenting a surface smooth and shining
as if it had been varnished, as indeed it has been by the continuous
moisture of the ages.
Another one of the chambers is almost entirely filled by an enormously
large stalagmite, sitting in everlasting darkness like one of
the old divinities, "Who had wrapped his senses up in sweet
oblivion of all thought, a piece of excellent beauty."
Many of the ceilings are hung with stalactites, and their uniformity
of appearance though out the cave is remarkable; they resemble
more than anything else huge mullen leaves growing in clusters.
The air of this, like that of the Mammoth Cave, appears t produce
the most exhilarating and healthful effects. A traveler who has
experienced them says; "Comparing the air with water, that
of the cave is pure cool water of the fountain, and that of the
earth the insipid water of the rain-vat," and on coming out,
he experienced, he tells us, a sensation of lassitude wholly unknown
to him while within the cave. These salutary effects are probably
attributable to the niter which abounds in greater or less degree
in all caverns, imparting an easy action to the respiratory organs,
buoying the spirits, and invigorating the whole system. The efficacy
of cave air in alleviating pulmonary diseases has been referred
to in some of the previous articles of this series.
Howe's Cave possesses an advantage, in the great size of its curiosities,
over most other caves, as they cannot easily be mutilated or removed
by the unrighteousness ot visitors. It would be less tedious to
the reader were we to enter into minute and elaborate descriptions
of the many avenues, chambers, domes, and ceiling which this beautiful
wonder of nature presents to the visitor, as most of it would
seem a mere repetition of descriptions which have been previously
abounds in the most curious and beautiful formations, such as
challenge the intensest and sincerest admiration of the beholder.
"I found," says one of its explorers, "in the course
of my wanderings, several square columns, with bases and cornices,
apparently cut out of the solid rock, and noticed many arches
overhead that looked like fine stone masonry; the white incrustations
having the appearance of cement or mortar."
is very hard to infuse into the imagination an idea of splendors,
to which nothing the eye has seen bears a resemblance; not much,
therefore, is to be hoped from such poor word-paintings as I can
command. Any further attempt would be little more than an accumulation
of words, leaving al the marvel, and mystery, and solemn magnificence
still a great way off from the apprehension of the reader.
Those who have examined it carefully bear testimony to the fact
that every step, so far as explored, gives the beholder more and
more extended ideas of the awfully sublime mysteries of nature,
and more and more impress the mind with a sense of its own littleness.
it not that love, and not power, is the name of Him who made all
these things, we might justly fear that we should be lost and
forgotten among the glories through which we creep about. But,
sees with equal eyes, as God of al,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall."
thoroughly ventilated is Howe's Cave, with a current of air coming
from no where knows where, and going no one guesses whither, that
no danger need be apprehended from a visit to it; the niter, too,
is not only a preservative of the health, but a benefit to it.
That the cave was know before the settlement of the whites is
a supposition underlying which is the argument that human bones,
as well as pieces of charcoal, incrusted with a solid coating
of carbonate of lime, of two or three inches in thickness, have
been found at the distance of more than a mile from its entrance.
The action of water has in a great degree affected and varied
the formation of the cave, but appears probable that the opening
of the solid rock was first produced by some tremendous convulsion,
and the splintered walls, together with the stupendous masses
of rocks with which the floors are strewn, and which seem to have
been torn from the roof, are indications favoring this idea.
Wherever the ceiling is smooth and sufficiently low, "it
is covered with autographs and classic symbols done in lampsmoke,"
and showing that ambition survives the difficulties of the way.
It is not unusual for the guide, on reaching a certain point,
to undertake, like Salmoneus of old, to rival the thunders of
Jupiter. "His firmament," says one who witnessed one
of these vast attempts, "was comparatively narrow, and the
fulminating machinery somewhat primitive, but there was nothing
contemptible in the report of the thunderbolts." His method
was to raise a heavy plank on one end, and by throwing his weight
upon it, bring it in sudden contact with the floor. The nearest
arches would catch up the sound, split it into ten thousand fragments,
and multiply them into each other until they became a deafening
peal; then they would cuff them this way and that, till they deepened
into the angry bellow of an earthquake, sending them through the
long-drawn aisles of the immense apartments, until every rock
in those miles of cavern would be gifted with the voice of thunder.
"We stood still, submerged in the awful noise," continues
the narator; and he concludes by saying, "If Jupiter Tonans
could have found any fault with the report of that fulminating
plank, his idea of good thunder must have been different then
our." The same writer says:
second experiment in acoustics was not less brilliant. Howe had
brought a mysterious box under his arm, shaped like a babies coffin,
from which he took out a violin, and resigning the insignia of
Jove, he stepped abruptly into the character of the Ole Bull.
Howe the thunderer had petrified us into speechlessness; converted
us into momentary fossils; but Howe the fiddler re-executed the
old Orphean feat, and made the human rocks eager to caper about
him in wild excitement; his music went to the heels quicker than
champagne ever went to the head, and the magic of the place transformed
his humble instrument into something divine
. Our spirits,
buoyed up by the music, kept up their elevation until we came
in site of The Harlem Tunnel. This passage is half a mile long,
and not more than five feet square. On entering the cave we had
passed the Tunnel on stones thinly covered with water; now the
stream had risen so high that there was only a foot of space between
its surface and the roof of the passage. Howe drew near, and so
held his lamp that we could clearly see the torrent rushing threw
the tunnel. 'There,' said he, 'we must either wade through that
passage or retrace our steps, and pass the night within the cave.'
The water was fast and rising, and in twenty minutes would fill
the tunnel. Before us were a warm supper, dry bedding, cheerful
daylight, wives and sweethearts. Behind were darkness, hunger,
cold, wet rocks, and a fearful looking for of death by flood or
precipice. We gave the onward word, and followed our leader. The
passage was well nigh a tragic affair, yet we managed to extract
fun from it. We had only to look well after our lights, and avoid
butting the rocks with our foreheads, and the rest was simple
wading. Once through, we drained our boots, and pressed forward
without obstruction. A hundred yards from the entrance, our eyes
were greeted with a soft pale blue light, which grew larger, and
whiter, and warmer as we advanced, until our lamps became dim,
and we were again bathed with the glad and yellow sunshine. Howe
was especially grateful for the preservation of his violin, while
there lingered in all hearts
A feeling like the moan
Of a wearied ocean when the storm is gone'"
is advisable that those persons proposing to make a subterranean
journey should provide themselves with a suitable outfit before
leaving home, over which one of the "court dresses,"
made and provided, may be worn; said dresses not unfrequently
bearing evidence of service that makes the fastidious shink from
It is a little surprising, in view of the number and magnificence
of our underground palaces, that they have not more especially
attracted the attention of travelers, and not more frequently
afforded inspiration to poets, particularly to our own poets,
as they present not only the best quality of material for fancy
to work with, but are also infinitely suggestive. So we will take
our leave of Howe's Cave,
whose curved roof the mountains' frozen tears,
Like snow, or silver, or long diamond spires,
Hang downward, raining froth a doubtful light."