Altamont Enterprise October 21, 2004

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Backroads geology

Odyssey of the quintessential cave

By Mike Nardacci

October, 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mrs. Ada M. Robinson, who lived in Knox. With her husband, she owned and operated the Knox Cave as a tourist attraction in the 1940's.; the couple sold the operating rights to the cave in the 1950's. This essay is a memoir of both the Robinsons and the cave, each of which played important parts in the folklore and history of the Helderberg area.

KNOX — On a rainy, misty, brooding day, an old-time caver like me can get a start while driving over the Knox Cave Road. The highway clips down, rises, makes the crest of a hill. Then all at once out of the fog comes a vision: an old Colonial-style house, set back off the road.

A house that was destroyed by fire in 1968, there again on the same site. Just as in the early days of Knox Cave.

But the house, of course, is modern. Yet seeing it — and knowing what the Robinson house, long gone, looked like — one cannot help wondering if the builders had a photograph of the old place before them as they worked.

Then, too, the new building is larger, grander, more solid looking: stained, not naturally weathered. Look at it a while, notice the other incongruities: a garage, a manicured lawn, signs of multiple occupancy, the whiff of affluence. Then it doesn't take the lifting of the fog to destroy the illusion. The past goes back into the past, the present is once more the present.

Mrs. Robinson is not at home today.

But once she was, and for those in the local community of cavers who started our explorations in the 1960's, Mrs. Robinson was the keeper of Knox Cave, the wife of Delevan C. Robinson, a figure as colorful as Lester Howe and one of the truly legendary figures in the history of the Helderbergs.

I never knew D.C., as he was known; he had died by the time I began caving, but those who knew him recall a big man with a chock of white hair and an ingratiating personality. He spent many years of his life trying to prove that Knox was the longest cave in New York State.

He helped to contribute to the legend of the cave, fostering..all the stories that those who get caught up in mist mystery have heard:

— The wall carvings that might be the writings of the Nephites central to Mormon history (but, in fact, are tiny channels dissolved by water in the Manlius limestone in which the cave is formed);

— The passages leading from the cave's Big Room, one of which might be a door into an underground kingdom called Lemuira (no comment);

— A pool known as The Fishpond, so-called because eye-less fish had been seen swimming in it (unfortunately, such fish are not known to dwell in caves north of the Mason-Dixon line); and

— The enigmatic figure known only as "Negley," who had explored the cave alone in the 1950's and had found a room the size of a football field — which neither he nor anyone else could ever find again.

Taking The Tour

One June afternoon when I was 13, I, along with a group of my friends, imposed on a couple of our parents to take us to visit Knox Cave, which had recently been opened for commercial tours. D.C. was still alive then, but he did not make an appearance on that day, when the cave was being managed by some men from Altamont.

But I remember driving past the Robinson house, which sat on the edge of old fields once farmed by the Truax family, but long gone to weeds, looking much as they do today. The house stood two stories high in its central section, and had wings with lofts on either side.

Parts of it had supposedly been built before the War of 1812. Sitting on the porches were boulders of calcite retrieved from the interior of the cave and other unusual rocks found in the fields round-about.

We parked and purchased tickets at the Knox Roller Rink, site of numerous barn dances as well as skating parties; its foundation can still be seen in the aspen grove next to the cave's gaping sinkhole entrance.

And we did The Tour, all 45 minutes of it. Down the long wooden staircase and then up a flight of stone stairs to the Big Room. A glimpse into the dank passage known as The Dungeon. Up the Indian Passage, with a Gothic arched ceiling — it was blocked by a rock collapse, but the belief was that extensive cave lay beyond it.

A brief stroll into the Skeleton passage, a name I never see on modern maps of the cave; the guide said that six Indian skeletons and numerous torches had been found there in the 1930's. A look at a large, squareish slab back near the bottom of the entrance stairs, on which seemed to be carved a sort of swastika-like design representing the four seasonal positions of the Big Dipper; an Indian carving, the guide said. Split in two, the slab is still there, the glyph still visible: perhaps solution channels, but it warrants, I think, a look by a trained eye.

And that was the end of the tour.

We went back to the surface for refreshments and a look at some more rocks on display, and we probably whined to our parents that we should have driven all the way to Howe Caverns to see a "real" cave.

And that was all I saw of Knox Cave until I took up the sport of caving in my freshman year of college, and was led to my second trip into the cave — and to Mrs. Robinson

Quintessential farmwife?

We got her name and some information about the cave from someone in the New York State Museum. As I was the English major in our group, I was elected to draft a letter to "Proprietor, Knox Cave" to request permission to enter.

A few days after I mailed it, I received a charming reply — the original of which I still have — inviting us to come up and join the many explorers of the cave. The letter spoke of mapping and surveying and other "worthwhile things" people were doing in the cave.

"Over 13 miles have been entered but not explored or mapped," she wrote, "so you see we have the largest cave in the state." (How crushed she must have been a year or so later when a preliminary geologic report of the cave was published, putting the actual length at only a little over 3,000 feet.)

Though her letter requested that we stop by to sign "a release," what she presented said nothing about a waiver of rights to sue. She called it her "guest book." Was this before lawsuits? The letter was signed in dainty script "Mrs. Robinson."

On our first trip to the cave, Mrs. Robinson was more than cordial. She invited us into her rustic kitchen, in which sat a mammoth cast-iron stove on which she cooked her meals; in winter, the stove provided her heat as well.

She was a tall, thin old lady, dressed perpetually in a print dress with a long flowered print apron. Apparently, no photographs of her exist, but think of Aunt Arie in the Foxfire books and you will see her as I see her still: her hair drawn back into a bun and her wrinkled face bedecked with a dazzling smile.

She showed us her glass-topped display cases containing mineral samples and arrow-heads, and, as she chatted away about them, she seemed the quintessential Appalachian farmwife.

Imagine my surprise when, after her death, I learned that she had a master's degree in English — had, in fact, taught English on Long Island, while her husband, D.C. — who had a Ph.D. from Carnegie Tech — worked as an engineer.

In 1935, they bought the old Truax farm, set up house-keeping in the old farmhouse, and "went native." But on that long-ago August day, none of this was known to us, and Mrs. Robinson's homey chatter seemed only to delay our entry into our first truly large "wild" cave, one whose size and complexity would far outstrip the few other Helderberg-area caves we had visited in the villages of Clarksville and South Bethlehem.

On the wild side

In those days, the gravel road to the cave was still driveable all the way to the entrance; today the road is blocked by huge boulders to help keep out trespassers on the property. Though the third and final attempt to commercialize the cave had failed, the roller rink and ticket booth were still in good shape. So was the lighting system in the cave, and, every once in a while, someone would break into the rink and turn it on.

On a later expedition, we arrived on a Sunday morning and found the lights still on from an illegal entrance the night before. We informed Mrs. Robinson who sent someone out to turn off the lights, but the system remained intact until the cave was purchased by Organa Industries.

The elaborate wooden staircase built by the most recent operators was still in place then, and I remember the tingle of anticipation as we descended it. We paused under the threatening, precarious-looking boulder that was already projecting a couple of feet or two over the stairs from the muddy edge of the sinkhole —just above the point where cavers paused to light their carbide headlamps. (The boulder, which is visible in brochures printed for the cave, finally fell in the 1970's, crushing and burying a section of the staircase.)

With eagerness, I retraced the steps I had taken as a kid some years before on the commercial tour. We poked around in the many rooms and passages I had entered, and were disappointed to find that most of them rapidly pinched out into narrow, muddy, impassable fissures.

But with the help of a caving group from Boston whom we had encountered, we did manage to wend our way to the notorious Gunbarrel, which the mysterious Negley had crawled through years before, finding a lengthy extension to the cave. Beyond this lay a canyon called The Great Divide, a silolike chamber named The Dome Room, and the fantastically-decorated Alabaster Room whose beauties lay at the end of a difficult fissure passage.

But the Gunbarrel stopped us short. It had been described to us as a circular, hand-and-knees crawlwav, straight as a barrel of a rifle.

But this! In the wall ahead lay a sort of keyhole-shaped opening which became simply round a few feet beyond its entrance — but this was 14 inches in diameter — and 47 feet long!

As one of the Boston cavers described it — "You don't crawl through it, exactly. You sort of put it on and wiggle out of it." And yet — as we followed the Boston crew as they vanished into the dreadful hole one by one — my memory of the whole incident is one of rollicking comedy, not fear. As novice cavers, this was our first experience with a truly tight crawl-way, and it seemed absurd to a bunch of college kids, not scary.

The Boston group had already shared with us some of the crude and colorful figures of speech people used in describing the Gunbarrel, and I'm sure that amid our laughter we added a couple of our own. In those days, the cave beyond the Gunbarrell was truly a pristine wilderness. Were visitors more respectful of the beautiful calcite formations growing there then or were they simply protected by the fact that so few people wandered the far reaches of Knox at that time? Hard to say. But as we followed our guides from Boston up through The Great Divide and took a brief side trip to the Dome Room, we were impressed by the great numbers of stalactites and stalagmites that were growing along the way — virtually all of which are gone today.

The Dome Room was particularly well decorated. It is a high, narrow room with a deep fissure in the floor, and above the fissure grew hundreds of the pencil-thin stalactites that cavers call "soda straws," some of them three feet in length. We had never seen such a display anywhere. While we stood there admiring it, one of the Boston cavers scrambled up the steep, slippery slope to the top of the dome that gave the room its name and lighted it for us to see. He seemed immeasurably high and remote, and, in the weak light from his carbide lamp, the dome looked shadowy and mysterious and alluring. I think, in that one moment, all of us were imbued with the mystique of caving.

Seeking the Alabaster Room

The trip to the remote Alabaster Room involved the first real vertical caving any of us had done. Though there were two rather rotted-looking manila ropes hanging from the ceiling of the Great Divide— rope no self-respecting rock-climber would sneeze at today — we chose instead to follow the Boston crew and "chimney" our way 30 feet up the canyon.

This is a fairly tricky procedure that involves placing your feet against one wall and your posterior against the opposite one and ascending with only the pressure of flesh upon rock to ward off the potentially fatal effects of gravity. We then forced our slender bodies (ah, youth!) through a very narrow, muddy crevice called the Lemon Squeeze and plopped into the tortuous passage known as the Crystal Crawlway, which leads eventually to t he Alabaster Room.

This passage is T-shaped, and it would be a nightmare for the claustrophobic; sometimes you are crawling in the cross-bar, sometimes — on your side! — in the vertical part of the T, and sometimes the vertical part widens out sufficiently to allow you to crawl on your belly on the bottom. The crawl in the cross-bar is particularly dangerous, for, if you are not careful, you could slip down into the narrow canyon below and get wedged. (One friend of mine did exactly that several years later, and, though we managed to extract him after about half an hour, he never set foot in a cave again.)

The passage is well-named, for, though it is fairly dry and dusty, calcite crystals gleam from the walls as they catch the light from your headlamp. You grunt and you groan, you tear your clothing on sharp projections, you feel your ribs and thighs scraping on hard lime-stone and know you will bear black-and-blue abrasions the next day — but the lure of "cave beyond" — is irresistible.

When we came to the end, we faced a drop-off of about 20 feet that required more chimneying — but, all at once, we found ourselves in the remoteness of the Alabaster Room.

It was not, after all, very large. Truth to tell, after all of the pains we had suffered in getting there, it was at first a little disappointing.

But what I remember is that no one was talking very much. Here were eight or so cavers, tired, sweaty, feeling aches in muscles we had never known we had — and perhaps we were all a little apprehensive at the thought of the long trip out, which would include traversing the Great Divide and crawling through the Gunbarrel again.

But each also had his carbide lamp fixed upon one of the milky white fantastic shapes of the Alabaster Room's decorations: soda straws and carrot-shaped stalactites, stubby stalagmites jutting from the walls, tiny, corkscrewshaped helictites, and the knobby formations known as "popcorn," all of it locked away at the far end of a subterranean canyon.

The room evoked a real sense of awe, an emotion increasingly rare in the modern world. Some years later I tried to capture my impressions of it and the rest of the cave . in a long poem titled "The Knox Cave Overture." I dedicated it to Mrs. Robinson, who by then had become our friend, and with whom we had spent many hours talking in her warm kitchen.

Yet one more deliciously sensual experience awaited us at the end of our trip through Knox Cave: the moment of the return to the surface after five long and tiring hours underground. We ascended the muddy, water-logged stairs and caught suddenly the smell of vegetation.

All at once, the light of a deep blue August afternoon burst through the darkness, and then there was the green of the trees and the mosses and ferns in the sinkhole: every one of the 42 shades of green which, it is said, anyone of Irish blood can recognize. There was the warm breeze and the subtle sounds and smells it carried with it. We felt that we had truly returned from another world.

Great expectations

There were many more trips, of course, during which time we pushed our youthful physiques into every fissure and crevice in the cave: always hoping to find that one black, muddy, over-looked hole that, after a few tight twists and turns, would open up again into the Darkness, and push Knox on toward Mrs. Robinson's 13-mile cave. And, although a thousand foot long extension was discovered a few years back, it turned out to be mostly a muddy crawlway.

So even now, decades after my first wild trip through the cave, I still expect — like all true cavers — that somewhere in Knox awaits the great unexplored passage.

After Mrs. Robinson's death from a stroke in 1964, the property began to deteriorate. Organa Industries, which had bought the cave from her with the intention of reopening it, went bankrupt. Within a few years, first the skating rink and then the rambling old house were destroyed in fires set by arsonists.

Eventually the cave was purchased by a physician from Schenectady and remained open to sport cavers, but, after a tragic fatal accident involving falling ice at the entrance in the 1970's, the cave was acquired by the Northeast Cave Conservancy, which manages it today. Though the cave is posted, qualified explorers can gain entrance by applying to the Conservancy for permission in the warm months.

Some of the Mrs. Robinson's mineral collection is now housed in the Knox Cave Room in the Knox Museum, along with other memorabilia from the cave's heydays.

I have continued to pursue caving as a hobby, but Knox remains for me, in many ways, the quintessential cave. It was there that, as a young man, I felt the irresistible call of caving that has since led me to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, the caves of West Virginia, and the lava tubes of Hawaii, in addition to the numerous caves of the Helderberg area.

But like one's first love, Knox keeps its own place in my memory, and I never return to its gaping entrance sinkhole without experiencing some of the charm it first cast over me. Knox is one of those great, almost holy places of youth whose images are indelibly burned into my memory and go where I go: what Ernest Hemingway called "a moveable feast" for the imagination.

At any time of course — but especially on rainy, misty, brooding days, when out of the fog comes a vision....

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