Under the Mountain State: The History of Cave Exploration in West Virginia

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Mills, Kyle D
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Along the Allegheny Mountains in eastern West Virginia lies one of the world’s great karst areas. Thousands of caves have been discovered in West Virginia, with new discoveries being made every year. The history of cave exploration in West Virginia began with Native Americans using the caves as shelters and mines for chert and gypsum. As European explorers and settlers moved from the coastal areas to the trans-Allegheny region, they developed many uses of caves ranging from hideouts to cold storage areas. The most significant use of caves by the early settlers was the mining of the nitrates found within the cave, commonly called saltpeter, the key ingredient in gun powder. Evidence exists that the caves were mined for saltpeter before the American Revolution and continued throughout the American Civil War. After the 1860’s, the caves of West Virginia were largely unexplored except for the occasional curious local who tried to penetrate the darkness. This changed in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s when a group of adventurers began systematically exploring caves in West Virginia using mountaineering techniques. This group formed into the National Speleological Society, the world leader in cave and karst study and exploration. As caving techniques advance throughout the following decades, hundreds of miles of cave passages were mapped, previous unobtainable depths were reached, and West Virginia could proudly boast its status as one of the greatest caving destinations in the world. Today, the spirit of discovery leads still leads the next generation of cave explorers underground in search of the unknown. Keywords: Cave, Caving, Natural History, Exploration, History, Native American, Saltpeter, Folklore, Geology, West Virginia, National Speleological Society