Shining some light underground

North country’s vast network of caverns mysterious, intriguing 

In this 1988 photo, Denny Ellingsworth discusses his decision to live in one of the Black River caves in Watertown. Last year, a group of spelunkers sought permission to explore and map the caves. The north country’s many caves have been a part of local lore for almost as long as some of its cities have existed. Photo courtesy Johnson Newspaper archives.

The north country is renowned for its natural beauty and geographical features. Tug Hill, the St. Lawrence River, the shores of Lake Ontario, and the Thousand Islands themselves have been attracting generations of tourists to the area since the 19th century.

Sadly, what is perhaps Northern New York’s most intriguing geographical feature hasn’t been visited by tourists or locals since the 1990s: the underground caves. Watertown and a number of surrounding areas, including Dexter, Limerick, Rodman, Adams, Lyme, and Brownville have been built on top of an immense sheet of limestone. Limestone is a soft type of sedimentary rock so called because it originated as sediment- or in limestone’s particular case, the skeletons of small underwater creatures that have collected over vast amounts of time.

So what does sedimentary rock have to do with caves? Given the soft nature of limestone, it is particularly susceptible to certain compounds like carbon dioxide sometimes contained in water. These compounds react with limestone’s composition to form carbonic acid, a weak acid that slowly begins to dissolve the rock. In Jefferson County’s case, the mighty waters of the Black River slowly but surely carved away at the limestone over the millennia to form abscesses, or caves.

Caves carved out of limestone typically showcase interesting features like springs, sinkholes, disappearing streams, and enlarged bedrock joints. Limestone also introduces minerals and nutrients to the ground that help with soil fertility — something that generations of area farmers have surely appreciated. Another interesting fact is that limestone caves can exist in areas where there isn’t a surface stream found for hundreds or thousands of acres — a testament to the persistent nature of water. New York is noted for its caves, with the longest networks found around Albany and in Jefferson County.

Simply referred to as the “Watertown Caves,” it was long believed that the first exploration of the local caverns by white settlers was conducted in 1822. However, in 1935, Crandall Phillips, a local judge, discovered the date 1809 inscribed on a cavern wall. Judge Phillips was an experienced cave explorer noted for his numerous underground excursions.

The noted British naval officer, traveler, and author, Capt. Frederick Marryat wrote about the caves. He published his accounts in a thinly veiled work of fiction in 1842. Numerous visitors to the caves reported labyrinthine passages leading to underground streams, high Gothic chambers, and stalagmites and stalactites. These reports have contributed vastly to our knowledge of these interesting caverns, which have never been professionally or fully mapped. Two local attempts were made in 1958 and 1970 but the results were incomplete. Last year, members of the Western New York cave explorers group Niagara Frontier Grotto contacted city officials in Watertown about exploring the Black River cave under the Watertown Veterans Memorial Riverwalk.

The caves have been part of local lore for almost as long as Watertown has been in existence. Legend maintains that somewhere in their tentacle-like depths they hide a cache of gold, artifacts, and other buried treasure. To date, however, the only artifacts discovered in the caverns have been those left by previous parties marking their visit — a glass bottle containing a slip of paper dated June 1, 1911, bearing the visitors’ signatures, for example.

Outside of individual adventures, some of the caves were used for commercial entertainment. The caves located in Glen Park, just down river from Watertown, were included in a small local amusement park that operated there for some years. The park was in many ways similar to Coney Island and included a Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds, concession stands, midway performances, and even a guided tour of the local cave.

The caves were used for practical purposes as well. The caverns under Watertown’s Newell Street were reportedly used for refrigeration. As the ice in those caves formed around mid-winter and did not melt until September, a local brewery used the caves to store beer. In another instance, one of the Public Square caverns was considered by the City Council for a possible bomb shelter during World War II. At one point, Watertown’s Chamber of Commerce even considered opening the caves to the public, hoping to draw more tourists. While that idea never came to fruition, the caves were used as the venue for nearly 30 wedding ceremonies over the years.

Citing insurance liability, most cave entrances were sealed up during the mid-1990s after increasing numbers of people got lost in them or were trapped by falling debris. Though they are no longer open to the public, the caves will certainly live on in local memory and lore.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.