Meramec Caverns is far and away my favorite tourist attraction in the Midwest. Missouri is The Cave State, and Meramec Caverns is one of the most spectacular show caves (so I've heard. I've only been to two so far.) I love it so much that I make my friends go there for my birthday at least every other year, and this year was a birthday year.
It's so great I hardly know where to start. Here's the list I rattle off when I'm convincing people to go: It has a restaurant, a gift shop, ice cream, a fudge store, a rock shop, panning for gold, digging for fossils, a boat ride (and a campground and a motel,) and that's all before you get to the cavern tour.
The entrance to the cave itself also has a collection of old slot machines and kid's rides.
Meramec Caverns commercial activities started under the name Saltpeter Cave back in the 1890s, where it was known for cave picnics. D.N. Gideon and Joseph Schmuke, who organized these cave parties, installed a bar, dance floor, and platform for musicians in the cave.
Saltpeter Cave got its name from the saltpeter mining that went on there from 1720-1760. Saltpeter is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. According to the book Missouri Caves in History and Legend (a great resource, by the way, if you are interested in commercial and wild caves,) there are nineteen caves in Missouri with Saltpeter in the name.
Moving on to the actual cave:
This little shack at the entrance was not, in fact, Jesse James' hideout, nor is it the type of cabin Jesse James would have lived in. It's just a moonshiner's shack that was found above ground on the property, complete with still. Say hullo to Pete!
The second big room in the cave is a huge ballroom-like space that can seat 3,000 people. This was the big room for the cave picnics. To answer the question everyone always asks, no, you can't rent it out for your party or wedding. They use the ballroom twice a year for The Lester Family.
In the 1950s, Art Linkletter sent some contestants from his show, People Are Funny, to spend a week in the cave for their "honeymoon." They had to perform a caveman & cavewoman routine for the tours that came through. At the end of the week they won a real vacation.
Meramec Caverns is believed to be one of the hideouts used by the James Gang. J Frank Dalton, who you will remember from my last entry, said it was one of his favorite hideouts.
Some people think this is a somewhat dubious claim, but according to Meramec Caverns, the stuff found around Loot Rock, including a strongbox from the Gadshill, MO train robbery, can be traced to the James Gang. The items found at Loot Rock are in glass cases at the entrance to the cave.
A lesson in cave formations: Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites grow up from the floor. When they grow together, that's called a pillar.
As some of you already know, the mission of this year's trip to the cave was to find the Virgin Mary formation. Two years ago, on our last trip to the cave, Keith bought me a commemorative Meramec Caverns plate with a depiction of a Virgin Mary cave formation on it. I have been on the tour at least a dozen times, and had never seen such a thing. This year we asked the tour guide and it turns out it's something you would never see unless you turned around and looked behind you right as you enter the Stage Curtain room.
Is that amazing or what? Totally natural formation. I'm sure we were an odd sight to the other people on the tour, this motley crew demanding to see the Virgin Mary.
Onward to the Stage Curtain! This is one of the largest known cave formations IN THE WORLD. So say some internet sources.
I don't know how true it is, but it's pretty impressive, particularly when you add in the light show. The light show really defies description. It involves a bank of switches the the tour guide flips rapidly while Kate Smith's rendition of God Bless America plays, and ends with a special American flag light. She actually sang it at Meramec Caverns on that little natural "stage" you can see on the left.
I left out a huge amount of the tour, so obviously you will have to plan a visit to get the full experience. Meramec Caverns is open year round (always 60 degrees!) and tours are $18. You can find coupons for this and many other Missouri attractions at visitmocoupons.com.