Fun Places to Visit
Meramec Caverns (Stanton, Missouri)
By Phil Dotree — May 11, 2011
Nestled in the solid limestone of the Ozark Plateau about an hour west of downtown St. Louis sit the Meramec Caverns. At 4.6-miles (7.4 km) in length, it’s the largest system of caves in Missouri. That’s quite a statement, since Missouri, with its more than 6,000 caves—23 of which offer tours—is nicknamed the Cave State. (Only the state of Tennessee has more caves than Missouri.)
A sign near the entrance to Meramec Caverns in Missouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
While they’re a bit out of the way, the Meramec Caverns are close to the old U.S. Highway 66, and numerous billboards combined with rich geological and historical significance have made the Meramec Caverns a very popular attraction in Missouri.
It’s part tourist trap and part educational adventure, but ultimately the Meramec Caverns system is certainly one of the more interesting tourist-accessible caves in the United States.
A look down from the top of meramec caverns' staircase. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
History of Meramec Caverns
Meramec Caverns are privately owned and have been actively promoted as a tourist attraction for almost a century. There’s a rich history to the Caverns which is explained to tourists by information boards and eager tour guides.
Discovered by French explorer Francis Philipp Renault in 1720, the cave was originally known as Saltpeter Cave due to the abundance of saltpeter in its walls. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was is an important ingredient in gunpowder (making up about 75 percent of it), so the cave was mined soon after its discovery and served as a “powder mill” for making gunpowder right up through the Civil War.
Signs indicate important areas of the cave, including the powder room where saltpeter was mined and gunpowder manufactured by the Union Army during the Civil War. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Unfortunately, while Saltpeter Cave was being used as a mine by the Union army during the Civil War it was attacked by a small group of Confederate soldiers. The saltpeter made the cave an important (and easy) target; ammunition is a vital military resource, and gunpowder is also highly explosive. The ensuing attack destroyed all of the mining equipment and took the lives of a number of workers, permanently ending mining operations in Saltpeter Cave.
Re-Purposing Meramec Caverns
However, the explosions didn’t do much damage to the cave itself, which didn’t remain unused for long.
Main entrance to Meramec Caverns leading to 'Ballroom' area. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
As is the case with most caves, temperatures in Meramec Caverns rarely rise above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which made the cave a welcome source of relief from hot Missouri summers. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the caverns became popular as a venue for “cave parties” consisting of concerts and dancing.
Just inside the entrance of Saltpeter Cave was a huge room that could hold a large crowd and a 50 foot by 50 foot dance floor. The cave soon became known for its “Ballroom” and was purchased in 1898 by Charles Ruepple, who, appropriately enough, was head of the Stanton, Missouri, dance committee.
The entrance to Meramec Caverns has very modern tiled floors, as seen here. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
In 1933, an explorer and businessman named Lester B. Dill bought the cave from Ruepple with the intention of turning it into a profitable open-to-the-public business venture. He was already familiar with cave systems thanks to his work at Fisher Cave in Meramec State Park.
Dill opened Saltpeter Cave on May 1, 1933 as Meramec Caverns. While readying the cave for tourists, Dill noted a small crevice in the cave wall through which blew cool air. Dill hacked through the wall, revealing whole new cave with many formations in what he called the “upper levels.”
Stalactites dip into an underground pool in Missouri's Meramec caverns. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Dill made some key discoveries, including some new areas which he explored and made accessible by cutting at the wall of the cave by hand.
Over the years, Dill would continue to discover new areas in the cave, which allowed his Meramec Caverns to expand and become a more exciting—and profitable—place for tourism. Indeed, Meramec became one of the most popular “show caves” in all of America.
Guides at meramec caverns use colored lights to highlight and enhance the natural beauty of the cave's structures. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Promoting The Caves
Lester B. Dill’s greatest contribution to the caves might have been his creative promotion, which was essential given some tough restrictions that the state of Missouri placed on him at first. As he couldn’t actively promote his cave, he’d hire local musicians as tour guides to increase attendance. Word spread quickly.
Over time, Dill gained more freedom to advertise, and he used every available method to get the word out about the cave system. Dill was actually one of the first people to use bumper stickers as a promotional tool to draw in visitors to Meramec Caverns along with a number of billboards on the nearby highway.
Coffee Mugs at the cave's gift shop. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
In 1960, another system of billboards was built into the cavern system and rented out as ad space. (It is said that this was the world’s first rentable billboard space in a cave.) This further increased the cave’s profitability.
Eventually billboard advertising restrictions outside the cave were eased, and the I-44 corridor has many such eye-catching sales pitches such as “Meramec Caverns, Part of Missouri’s History!” and “Lunch Specials Daily!” It’s not surprising that Meramec became the most-visited cave in Missouri with 150,000 visitors annually.
The 'Honeymoon Suite' that was featured on Art Linkletter's TV show, 'People are Funny.' (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Promotion of the cave even included a spot on Art Linkletter’s television show, People Are Funny, in which a newlywed couple was goaded into spending their honeymoon in Meramec Caverns.
Following World War II, Dill send his son-in-law Rudy Turilli and associates to the Empire State Building dressed up as cavemen (that is, if you believe cavemen actually wore leopardskin outfits), and they threatened to jump off unless everyone in the world visited Meramec Caverns. (They were promptly arrested and removed from the building.)
The lighting system at Meramec Caverns highlights certain geological structures in the cave. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
It’s important to note that everything Dill did was meant to bring in more visitors and allow his family to continue to operate the cave. Although he made some major modifications to the cave system and proved himself an aggressive advertiser, Dill had a profound respect for his cave that has carried through to the guides that lead modern tours.
The Hideout of Jesse James?
Visitors often flock to Meramec Caverns because of the cave system’s reputation as the hideout of outlaw Jesse James in the 19th century.
Models of old-time outlaws, one of the few references to Jesse James near the cave's entrance. (Photo in Meramec Caverns by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
The connection between Meramec Caverns and Jesse James remained obscure until the summer of 1941, when a rather severe drought hit the area and the water table dropped. Cave guides noted a change in a small pool of water that spilled out of a “dead end” wall. The ever-inquisitive Lester B. Dill decided to go under the wall, through the water, and see what was on the other side.
Dill found yet another large network of subterranean passages that fanned out into the limestone, along with artifacts supposedly traceable to the legendary outlaw, Jesse James. These artifacts include strong boxes from the train robbery at Gadshill, Missouri, rifles, and shackles. Dill also collected sheriffs’ reports and eyewitness accounts in an attempt to prove that Jesse James actually used the caverns as a hideout.
Saltpeter Mining artifacts found inside Meramec Caverns near Stanton, MIssouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Truth be told, there’s very little evidence of the link between Meramec Caverns and Jesse James other than legend and a few artifacts, but that hasn’t stopped the cave’s owners from capitalizing on the possibility.
Numerous road signs leading to Meramec Caverns feature painted pictures of Jesse James and his cohorts, and nearby attractions like the Jesse James Wax Museum (also in Stanton) further cement the place in the lore of the old West. According to some scholars, there’s a very good chance that Jesse James was part of the group of Confederate soldiers who blew up the Union saltpeter mine during the Civil War. It would make sense that Jesse James returned to the cave later (in the 1870s) when he and his brother Frank needed a hideout, but there’s a heavy dose of speculation and colorful local legends mixed in with the facts.
A number of Civil War-era guns were found in Meramec Caverns and are on display there. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Meramec Caverns Tours
Make no mistake about it: despite the billboards, Jesse James isn’t the focus of the Meremac Caverns cave tours.
Almost as soon as our tour started, the guide cast off all of the Jesse James stuff, telling a few quick stories and then immediately focusing on the fascinating geology and history of the cave. That’s a good thing, as the Caverns are a rich cave system with massive stalactites and stalagmites.
A visitor ascends the tall staircase which leads to the Wine Table Room at Meramec Caverns. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
A colorful lighting system draws attention to the natural beauty of these structures which have formed over millions of years. Many continue to grow, so guests are told not to touch any of the walls or ceilings of the cave, as human hands have acids that could “kill” the cave structures. The no-touch rule is enforced by signs at the cave entrance and by watchful tour guides.
Each tour takes about an hour, provided that all sections of the cave are accessible. Rising water levels sometimes prevent guests from viewing the lower levels of Meramec Caverns, but ticket prices are discounted when this occurs. In any case, most of the guests’ time is spent in the upper levels, so even during Missouri’s rainy seasons the tours stay relatively consistent.
The so-called Wine Table Room at Meramec Caverns in Missouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Geological Structures and Light Shows
Over the course of the tour, guides point out key landmarks and explain how they relate to the history of the cave along with some basic geology. Meramec Caverns has the one of the world’s largest stalagmites, Onyx Mountain, a 70-million year old structure called the Stage Curtain, and another feature called the Wine Table.
The Wine Table Room is an especially interesting sight, although getting there requires a trek up dozens of steps. It’s the only optional part of the tour, as climbing the steps can be physically demanding, but it’s well worth the extra effort. The Wine Table is a unique stalagmite-like structure with three legs that was formed underwater before a massive earthquake drained one of the caverns. It’s about seven feet tall and looks just like a manmade table. Tour guides will point out the “wine bottles” on the top of the table which gave the room its name.
Because the Wine Table was created underwater, it is now supported with a metal tube to prevent it from collapsing. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Onyx Mountain is also interesting and very, very wet. Half of the stalagmite is still growing, while the other side is dead. It’s mainly interesting for its enormous size and it’s in a room with many other beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, along with more colored lights that produce an interesting visual effect.
The end of the tour features a light show of sorts at the Cavern’s theater. The theater is actually just a group of seats in front of some of the most breathtaking stalactites and stalagmites in the entire cave system, a 70-foot high structure nicknamed the Stage Curtain. During the light show, several songs are played while the tour guide flips various configurations of colored lights on and off that illuminate this remarkable formation.
Guests enjoy a light show at the cavern's so-called theater, observing 60 lighting effects played out on the geological structure called the Stage Curtain, which is 70 feet high and 60 feet wide. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
This all sounds like a very low-budget way to end a tour, and it is, but it’s also remarkable and entertaining. The Curtain is impossibly large and impossibly old, and although Meramec Caverns advertisements often reach the point of hyperbole, it’s hard to argue with their assertion that this is the “world’s rarest cave structure.” It’s absolutely astounding and easily the highlight of the tour.
There’s a gift shop, a small restaurant, and an ice cream vendor built directly into the entrance of the cave system. While the restaurant smells a bit musty—it is, after all, in a cave—it’s still a nice place to grab a bite to eat. Outside the cave are a few more shops, riverboat tours, zip lines, and other minor tourist attractions, all of which cost a bit extra but offer something unique to the Missouri tourist.
A waiting area where Meramec Caverns cave tours begin. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Enthusiastic tour guides make the Meramec Caverns a great visit. It’s a truly breathtaking system of caverns and one of the most interesting geological sites in the United States. The natural beauty of Meramec Caverns is easily worth the price of admission and the nearby Jesse James wax museum has a fun, hokey tourist-trap vibe that complements the simple beauty and history of the cave system.
Meramec Caverns costs $19.00 for adults and $9.50 for children aged 5-11. Children under 4 are free. Tours start every twenty to thirty minutes, and the hours of operation can be found at Meramec Cave’s multimedia website, www.americascave.com.
Phil Dotree, a St. Louis native, has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Yahoo!, Digg.com, Fark, TheFrisky.com, ManOfTheHouse.com) and many companies including Gillette and Proctor and Gamble. These pieces have included opinion articles, website content, press releases, SEO, and much more. He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com. John studied English at Southern Illinois University and currently works exclusively as a freelance writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri.