In 1848, a lone trapper stumbled on something in Garden of the Gods that the teeming city now surrounding the park has almost forgotten: a hidden cave.
The trapper, Jacob Spaulding, squirmed through a tiny hole at the base of the 320-foot red sandstone monument North Gateway Rock and, according to his later account, discovered a cavern he estimated to be 15 feet wide, 200 feet long and 100 feet high, with a sandy floor littered with mountain lion prints.
If his account is true, Kissing Camels is hollow.
All living memory of the cave is now lost. It was sealed by the city in 1935 after a cave-in and all those who set foot in it are likely gone.
Now, a local history buff wants the seal broken so the cave can be studied, but the city would rather keep it closed, at least for now.”This is a significant part of our history and it needs to be documented,” said David Hughes.
On a recent morning, the garrulous 80-year-old champion of west-side history pushed through oak thickets at the base of the rock, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and bear-claw bolo tie.
Hughes is a loud and often profane gadfly. He has been instrumental in a variety of causes, from the preservation of Old Colorado City to wireless Internet use in the Himalayas. As an Internet pioneer, he is credited with creating the first chat room.
The cave is his latest project.
At the foot of the rock, he stooped by a small cement and sandstone plug.
“This is it … it’s been sealed for decades,” he said, catching his breath. “There is nothing, not even a damned marker, to show this is here.”
Hughes wants to apply for a State Historical Fund grant to open this natural vault, conduct a full archaeological survey, reseal it, and create an interpretive display in the park for visitors.
Old Gazette articles suggest a study could turn up interesting finds.
The trapper wasn’t the only one in the region’s early history to explore the cave. Members of the Lawrence Party, which came here searching for gold in 1858, found refuge in the cave during an afternoon thunderstorm.
They carved their names in the soft sandstone, as did other early pioneers, including William Henry Jackson, the famous frontier photographer.
“At some point in the late 1800s, knowledge of the cave was lost, either because of a cave-in or bushes covering it, or some other damned thing,” said Hughes.
Then, in 1935 a Gazette reporter got a call that the cave had been rediscovered. An old man had asked at the Hidden Inn gift shop where he could find the cave he remembered from his youth, according to the Gazette article.
Nobody knew what he was talking about, but his story sparked the curiosity of a Civilian Conservation Corps crew in the park.The men started poking around and found a tiny opening they could enlarge.
“Soon, sure enough, they found themselves within a large cave,” an October 1935 Gazette and Telegraph article read. “The walls were carved with names and initials, which extended down to the very floor, leading them to believe that much dirt had fallen on the bottom of the cave. This they started to remove, ever finding more rock carvings on the walls as they dug deeper.”
They took out 75 truckloads of dirt, revealing a tall panel of names.
Before the cave could be thoroughly studied (or, fortunately even more thoroughly disturbed by the work crew) a chunk of rock fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing the diggers below.
The city park board ordered the entrance sealed with steel and concrete. The cave was lost again for decades.
In 1963, erosion opened the cave again. Three park employees crept inside.
The city park director, one of the lucky trio, told the Gazette Telegraph the cavern “could be called the ‘Echo Cave’ of the Garden of the Gods because the tiniest whisper seems to bounce around from wall to wall like a rubber ball.”
Citing the danger of a cave-in, the city again quickly resealed the cave.
It was forgotten again for decades until local author Richard Gehling was doing research in the late 1980s for his book “Man in the Garden of the Gods.”
“I have talked with the city many times about opening the cavern,” Gehling said. “But they are not very interested in opening it up.”He and Hughes would like to see the cave studied by a trained archaeologist, then sealed with a locked gate.
Matt Mayberry, director of the Pioneers Museum and the man in charge of all things historical for the city, said he is reluctant.
“I don’t argue that it is significant,” he said. “But it is preserved now. It’s been sealed safely for many decades. It’s like a time capsule. To do a study of an area like that you need resources and time, none of which we have right now.”
Paul Butcher, director of the city parks department, which manages the Garden of the Gods, agrees.
His department faced $3 million in budget cuts this year.
“We just don’t have the resources to do a serious, decent, archaeological look at (the cave),” he said. “And right now, since it seems well-preserved, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need.”
Hughes is undeterred. He is quick to point out he has achieved a surprising number of things without local government support.
Butcher said if money could be found, he’d happily discuss it with Hughes.
“We have something here that is significant to the first chapter of our history,” said Hughes. “I’ll go to hell if I let it go undocumented before I die.
*Editor’s Note: This article was first published by The Gazette in December of 2008.
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