Friday, July 06, 2007

Cliff Cave

As we approach the hottest days of the year here, relief from high temperatures and the punishing heat of the high sun are never far from the mind. That we are now blessed with air conditioning often leads us to ignore the chill that nature provides. But if we look upon the lives of our ancestors, we find that they had ways of relieving the summer heat, often by finding refuge in the depths of the earth; either in a man-made cellar, or in a natural cave.

CLIFF CAVE, in the town of Oakville, in southeastern Saint Louis County, Missouri, has been a popular destination for revelers, ne'er-do-wells, and explorers for centuries. This cave is not the largest in the area, nor is it the most beautiful, but instead it is the most easily accessible cave for locals. The Saint Louis area, even the City itself, has many caves; but their entrances are obscure: some are hidden beneath locked manhole covers, while others are kept as reserves for bats and unique cave fauna, their whereabouts kept secret by the local speleological society. This cave, however, is well known.

Some say that Cliff Cave gets its name from the sharp cleft it has left in the otherwise continuous, tall cliffs that line the western banks of the Mississippi River, and this void in the bluffs was used as navigation marker for river pilots. The narrow hollow (or valley) that leads from the cave to the river bluffs was undoubtedly once a part of the cave itself, its roof now long collapsed. The cave was also known as Indian Cave, and was used by those peoples for countless centuries.

Cliff Cave County Park, in Oakville, Missouri, USA - entrance to Cliff CaveThe cave is in Cliff Cave County Park, and can be entered by permit.

A perpetual spring of water flows from the cave; indeed, in this region, all caves have their origin as springs. Missouri lacks any recent volcanic activity, so all known springs in the state are cool: their year-round temperature being close to the average annual temperature in the area.

On the day that I visited the cave, the temperature atop the bluffs was 93 °F (34 °C); as I descended to the hollow below the cave, the temperature quickly dropped to 86 °F (30 °C); just outside of the mouth of the cave it was 75 °F (24 °C), and just ten feet inside of the cave the temperature was 65 °F (18 °C). Undoubtedly it is cooler even farther inside.

Caves and springs hereabouts have long been used as a natural source of cooling, both for man himself and for his goods.

Unlike the cold of northern Europe, where strong distilled spirits are used to warm the heart, here the climate is both cold and hot, and cool beverages like wine and beer are in great demand in the summertime. This cave's temperature happens to be ideal for the storage of wine, and providentially, good grapes for making wine grow well here. This cave was used as the cellar for the Cliff Cave Winery in the 19th century; French fur trappers operated a tavern here in the 18th century, and the cave was used as a beer cellar and Prohibition-era speakeasy (or illegal tavern) in the early 20th century. The stone-work at the entrance of the cave was built for the use of the winery.

Cliff Cave County Park, in Oakville, Missouri, USA - interior of Cliff CaveThe main cave entrance is covered with graffiti; the remains of a stone wall channel the spring water on the left side of the cave; deeper inside, the cave soon becomes wild and inhospitable for humans, and extends for at least 4700 feet in its various passages.

Caves, besides offering coolness and shelter, are also hidden; this cave was used by cattle rustlers, Confederate soldiers, mobsters, and generations of teenagers, all to avoid the eyes of the authorities. After a great tragedy in this cave, where six lost their lives in a flash-flood, this cave entrance was barred by a chain-link fence.

Caves are sometimes of volcanic origin, and the hot sulfurous vapors that emanate from them make them a natural symbol for Hades; while in Plato's Republic, the cave is a symbol of ignorance; but in Missouri, as well as in ancient Israel, caves are more associated with springs, coolness, and the giving of life in a parched land. These kinds of springs, with cool, crystalline, pure water, are used by Christ and the Prophets as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

The darkness of caves can be a symbol of death, or of being cut off from the light of God, and we are reminded of Christ's sepulcher; but we also remember the manger in Bethlehem; that cave is even called a symbol of Heaven in the Eastern liturgy for Christmas. Caves and grottoes abound in scripture, the lives of the saints, and Catholic art, usually as good places of refuge and contemplation.

The final letter in the Greek alphabet, Omega 'Ω', is thought to be derived from an ancient ideogram meaning 'house, fortress, or cave'. This and related symbols have been discovered in caves dating to the remotest of antiquity. The word 'cave' comes from the Latin 'cavus', meaning 'hollow', while the word 'grotto' comes from the Latin 'crypta', meaning 'cave' among other things.

Edmund Flagg, in his book The Far West, or, A Tour Beyond the Mountains, dating from 1838, describes Cliff Cave:
A few miles below the [Jefferson] Barracks, along the river-bank, is situated quite a remarkable cave. I visited and explored it one fine afternoon, with a number of friends. With some difficulty, after repeated inquiry, we succeeded in discovering the object of our search, and from a neighbouring farmhouse furnished ourselves with lights and a guide. The latter was a German, who, according to his own account, had been something of a hero in his way and day; he was with Napoleon at Moscow, and was subsequently taken prisoner by Blucher's Prussian Lancers at Waterloo, having been wounded in the knee by a musket-ball. To our edification he detailed a number of his "moving accidents by flood and field." A few steps from the farmhouse brought us to the mouth of the cavern, situated in the face of a ragged limestone precipice nearly a hundred feet high, and the summit crowned with trees and shrubbery ; it forms the abrupt termination to a ravine, which, united to another coming in on the right, continues on to the river, a distance of several hundred yards, through a wood. The entrance to the cave is exceedingly rough and rugged, piled with huge fragments of the cliff which have fallen from above, and it can be approached only with difficulty. It is formed, indeed, by the rocky bed of a stream flowing out from the cave's mouth, inducing the belief that to this circumstance the-ravine owes its origin. The entrance is formed by a broad arch about twenty feet in altitude, with twice that breadth between the abutments. As we entered, the damp air of the cavern swept out around us chill and penetrating. An abrupt angle of the wall soon shut out the daylight, and we advanced by the light of our candles. The floor, and roof, and sides of the cavern became exceedingly irregular as we proceeded, and, after penetrating to the depth of several hundred yards, the floor and ceiling approached each other so nearly that we were forced to pursue our way upon our hands and knees. In some chambers the roof and walls assumed grotesque and singular shapes, caused by the water trickling through the porous limestone. In one apartment was to be seen the exact outline of a human foot of enormous size; in another, that of an inverted boat; while the vault in a third assumed the shape of an immense coffin. The sole proprietors of the cavern seemed the bats, and of these the number was incredible. In some places the reptiles suspended themselves like swarms of bees from the roof and walls; and so compactly one upon the other did they adhere, that scores could have been crushed at a blow. After a ramble of more than an hour within these shadowy realms, during which several false passages upon either side, soon abruptly terminating, were explored, we at length once more emerged to the light and warmth of the sunbeams, thoroughly drenched by the dampness of the atmosphere and the water dripping from the roof.

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