It’s like descending into another world. Onondaga Cave at the state park of the same name is truly a wonder. In fact, it has been registered as a National Natural Landmark. Onondaga Cave State Park is located on the Meramec River approximately 5 miles southeast of the village of Leasburg.
The cave and surrounding area have a long and interesting history. The land was originally settled in 1850 by George and Statirah Cresswell, who built a mill on the Meramec River near Saranac Springs. Unfortunately, a large flood destroyed Cresswell's mill in 1881. The property was purchased by William H.R. Davis. He built a new mill on the property further away from the river at what is now known as Onondaga Spring.
The cave was discovered in 1886 behind the spring that powered the new mill by a man named Charles Christopher. After exploring the cave’s tunnels for an entire day with friends, Christopher acquired the land over the cave. He developed what was known as the “Mammoth Cave of Missouri,” and began a property dispute with Davis that ended up lasting over fifty years.
Lily pad room.
After the death of Davis in 1899, his property was sold. Three years later, Christopher and his partners also sold their portion of the land. A St. Louis group owned by a man named George Bothe, Sr. now owned the property and formed a company with the intention of mining the cave for black onyx. After test mining, it was determined that this objective would not be financially fruitful. As a result, the cave was opened as a tourist attraction and named Onondaga after an Iroquois tribe, meaning “people of the mountain.” The goal was for it to be a destination sightseeing spot during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair) planned in St. Louis for 1904.
The property changed hands for the next several years, with property disputes that included the widow of William H.R. Davis. These disagreements continued well into the 1930s, even dividing the cave in half at one point, with one half being opened as “Missouri Caverns.”
Early tour group bus.
In 1938, a new entrance to Onondaga Cave was dug out, making it more accessible. The entrance, which to this day is the one used, allowed the rerouting of visitor tours. However, soon both Missouri Caverns and the nearby Cathedral Cave were closed due to decreased interest in tourism during World War II.
Early tour by boat.
The land disputes and owner changes continued until 1945, when it was acquired by Barnard Hospital. For the first time since its discovery, Onondaga now had only one owner. Charles Rice, a director of the hospital, took control of the now-joint caverns as well as Cathedral Cave.
Finally, free of the financial and legal problems that had long plagued the caves, he began to develop them under the management of a man named Al Bryan. The entire cave became electrically lighted, and old paths were replaced with new trails, stairs and bridges.
Lester B. Dill and Lyman Riley gained ownership of the property in 1953. The once popular boat trips were stopped due to safety concerns, but the docks inside of the cavern were kept. These docks can still be seen today, along with a replica of the boats once used for entering the cave.
Dill had long been in the business of caverns and had operated both the Fisher and Mushroom caves at Meramec State Park. He had also developed the Saltpeter Cave into what is now the Meramec Caverns. Riley had worked at both Meramec Caverns and Onondaga Cave.
Thus began a time of prosperity for the caverns. Celebrities visited, stories and advertising campaigns were written, and Riley and Dill made appearances on television. Riley even became an ordained minister and held church services and performed wedding ceremonies in the cave.
Riley sold his shares to Dill in 1967, and after Dill’s death, Onondaga became a state park dedicated to Dill. It was officially dedicated in 1982, and also became a National Natural Landmark.
Now well into its second century, Onondaga Cave is under the management of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks. In 1990, a new visitor's center and a nature museum were created. Guided tours allow visitors to experience the underground wonderland. Trained guides lead you over electrically lighted paved walkways providing information about geologic wonders of the cave.
The walking tours of Onondaga Cave leave from the visitor center. They are just under one-mile-long, and last about one hour and 15 minutes. The temperature of the cave is a chilly 57ºF year-round so be sure to bring a jacket and comfortable shoes.
Regular Admission is $15 for everyone over 13, $9 for ages of 6-12, and free for all children under 6. From mid-April through the end of May, and during the month of September, weekday morning tours are often full with school and civic groups. During these months, you may want to plan for a weekend tour or call the park office prior to your visit to check the schedule.
After your tour of Onondaga Cave, the park provides lots of other great things to do. The Cathedral Cave is also on site at the Onondaga State Park and provides a beautiful lantern tour. The park’s Vilander Bluff Natural Area provides a panoramic view of the Meramec River.
Other activities on site include camping, water activities on the Meramec River, special nature interpretive programs, and a special use area. Come and see a great example of why Missouri is known as the “Cave State.”
Have you been to Onondaga Cave? Would you like to go? Make it a weekend trip and see the entire park. Please share comments, photos, and stories in the comments below.