Lookout Tennessee: Underground Wonder

DougBarnett

Leo Lambert crawled for miles through a narrow tunnel before finding the 145- foot waterfall in the 1920s.

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Discovered by accident, Ruby Falls has become a true Southern icon.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN

I love my friend Gregg. I really do. But lately he has taken to annoying me with questions about the “list of adventures” I have set upon before older age finally reduces the possibilities. Poor Gregg, he cannot help himself. A professional philosopher, he has the same effect as a 4-year-old repeatedly asking, “…but why?” For decades he has been my muse in things academic, and now in retirement he is confounded by my whimsical escapades.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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When I risked life and limb to ride the Chattanooga Incline, he was mildly impressed, but my latest act of derring-do – to explore Ruby Falls – has left him, well, bemused. When I announced my new caper, his one question to me was, if in the same spirit as riding the Incline, I intended to go over the falls in a bucket. When I explained that Ruby Falls is contained within an underground cavern, he snorted, hummed something that sounded vaguely like “Oh, My Darlin’ Clementine” and hung up. Some people!

He can hardly be blamed; in fact, growing up in Oregon, he has never seen a Rock City barn or Burma Shave signs on fence posts. One weeps for his cultural deprivations! Every good Southerner knows these icons, and surely in the past 20 years Ruby Falls has joined that august company. I have been urged to “See Ruby Falls!” on billboards from Florida to Ohio, West Virginia to west Texas. And those are just the ones I noticed.

How did I manage to miss it thus far? I knew Ruby Falls was enormously popular since my Chattanooga friends grumbled about the traffic on the Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway, which leads to the attraction’s entrance and is also the main route to their homes. It was either traffic jams or the Incline; I always voted for the traffic!

Unlike with heights, I cannot remember ever having strong feelings about depths. As a young girl growing up during the Prohibition era in southern Kentucky, my mother heard rumors of magnificent parties where illicit liquor was served in the grand chambers of nearby Mammoth Cave. Upon reflection, Prohibition seemed to have spawned all sorts of subterranean mythologies of hidden caches of hooch. My father never commented, but was famous for his claustrophobia. I am quite certain he lived out his virtuous 75 years without once setting foot in a cave, mammoth or not.

Had education or culture prepared me for my possible response to caves? My six hours of undergraduate geology, the Bible and an unfortunate addiction to 1950s sci-fi movies had all convinced me that the earth’s crust was fundamentally unstable, given the ease with which Old Testament prophets chastised the firmament into unnatural contortions, and the tendency for various celluloid monsters to crawl from beneath its delicate surface. So, it seemed to me that traveling underground, perhaps for miles, could conjure up its own unique set of terrors.

To prepare for the Ruby Falls trip, which required descending 26 stories beneath the surface, I calculated the presumed speed of continental drift and the frequency of tectonic plates smashing against each other, concluding I was probably safe underground for a few hours.

Given the limestone composition of much of the Southeast, it is not surprising the mountainsides would be rich with caves. Lookout Mountain Cave at the foot of the peak, across from the Tennessee River’s famed Moccasin Bend, has been known for centuries, and Native Americans and soldiers on both sides of the Civil War used it for shelter. After the war, the community at the top of the mountain continued to develop more peacefully with private homes, summer cottages and grand hotels.

In the 1920s, a chemist and cave aficionado, Leo Lambert, founded a company that bought Lookout Mountain Cave in order to develop it as a tourist attraction for the rapidly growing population of visitors. Since the old cave entrance had been made useless a few years before by a railroad tunnel, Lambert began drilling above the cave, intending to install an elevator directly into it. Unexpectedly he drilled into a small (18 inches high by 4 feet wide) horizontal shaft several hundred feet above the known cave’s roof.

A passionate spelunker, he and several friends followed the small opening into the wider cavern, crawling for hours before they were able to stand. Miles later, they were the first to see the spectacular 145-foot interior waterfall. A few days later, Lambert’s wife, Ruby, accompanied him through the rough, narrow, muddy tunnel…reason enough for this beautiful site to be named for her. Sadly, Lambert lost ownership of the cave during the Depression, but other investors stepped in to ensure its extraordinary success.

When my friend and I arrived at Ruby Falls Cave, we were guided to a parking place by a cheerful, bearded fellow who looked just like Santa Claus. His grin was infectious as he welcomed us to the castle-like visitor center where we were quickly whisked 260 feet underground by the cave elevator.

Of course it had a glass door, so we witnessed millennia passing in stone layers. How quickly we left one world for another! I admit to a bit of nervousness as we stepped into a low, narrow tunnel lit only by artificial light. Soon my nerves were restored (deep breathing), and we dutifully followed our guide through the long, tapered passages for close to a mile, gawping at the clever names for various stone configurations along the way.

We clearly saw the melted candle, the donkey’s posterior and the leaning column, but the most beautiful to us were the mirror-like shelves of water, artfully lit, that reflected the swirling stone. In fact, our most amazing realization was that water, dripping and coursing through stone over epochs, had produced this entire cave and its features, give or take an earthquake or two.

Even when we reached the ultimate goal of Ruby Falls, accompanied by appropriate mood lighting and dramatic music, I scanned the walls surrounding the falls. They are scored by thousands of years of water dripping, rushing, swirling. The marks on the stone are easily seen, and were as impressive and dramatic as the falls themselves to our inexperienced, but appreciative eyes.

Emerging again into present time, we were decanted into the gift shop, where we were suitably captivated by pictures of various celebrations held in the cave. We saw a lovely photograph of a couple in wedding attire standing right at the falls, he handsome in his tux and she in a resplendently white gown. All I could think was, “How on earth did she traverse a mile along muddy cave floors without so much as a smudge on her spotless ensemble?” A more graceful lady than me, I fear.

We saw notices of holiday events hosted by Ruby Falls. We are told by impeccable authorities that, like Santa Claus, they are great fun, and I am sure they are.

In the meantime, I bought a cool vintage postcard featuring the “See Ruby Falls” slogan. I carefully marked through the “SEE” and imposed “ I SAW Ruby Falls And You Didn’t!” I sent it to Gregg. Serves him right!

If you go

Getting there: Ruby Falls is at 1720 S. Scenic Hwy., Lookout Mountain, TN 37409

Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. EST, daily

Prices: Adult, $17.95; Child, $9.95

More information: rubyfalls.com; 423-821-2544

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