Nesmith Cave


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Bibliography: Frank George O'Brien (1904): Minnesota pioneer sketches, from the personal recollections and observations of a pioneer resident, Minneapolis, Minn., H.H.S. Rowell, 1904, pp 160ff.
Carl E. Van Cleve (1930): The Nesmith Cave Hoax, Minnesota History, 11:74. Minnesota Historical Society
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History

 
1866-67a series of articles about a new discovered cave is published.

Description

Nesmith Cave is the invention of David Edwards. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1816, came to St. Anthony in 1853, removing to Texas for his health in 1885, where he died in September, 1890. He called himself Colonel Edwards when arriving at St. Anthony in 1853. He erected the first stone building of St. Anthony of limestone to open a general store. The ground floor was used as a store, the first floor was divided into offices, and the second store was fitted up as a public hall. It was used for dances, concerts, festivals, justice court meetings, and also for political gatherings.

Colonel Edwards was a ready writer, and so he invented stories for the long winter months. He wrote stirring articles in the St. Anthony Democrat under pseudonym. One was the story about Nesmith Cave, which soon became famous and even was described in Chambers' Encyclopedia as actual history.

Nesmith Cave was discovered by the fictitious Mr. Nesmith. Much of the description was based on an actual cave, Chutes Cave, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are close parallels between details in the cave hoax and Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, the first publication of the newly founded Smithsonian Institution in 1848. Edwards wrote a letter which may tell most of the story.

St. Anthony, Minn., Jan. 8, 1867.
Virgil S. Parmlee, Esq., Almont, Mich.--My Dear Sir:

Your letter of Dec. 27 has been handed to me with the request for an answer. As you seen to take a deep interest in new discoveries, I shall endeavor to give you as correct a description of the newly discovered cave in this city as my feeble abilities will admit. Mr. Nesmith and myself, in company with the members of the city council, made the necessary arrangements and entered the mouth of the cave in Mr. Nesmith's cellar, each one holding a lighted Roman candle. We descended the steps, which are of stone with iron railing. We then fastened the end of our twine to the foot of the steps and struck out westwardly in the direction of the river, passing along an entry which led to a chamber of moderate size. A little to the right of this one we entered a second, still larger. In the center of this a huge stalagmite had formed. We called it the tower of St. Anthony. It is a lofty mass, 200 feet in circumference, surrounded from top to bottom with rings of fountain basins hanging from its sides, each wider than the other and carved by the action of the water into as beautiful shapes as if cut by the hand of a sculptor. We penetrated to the third chamber. Here there was no center column, but the effect was produced by the immensity of the vault. It appears as if you might set beneath it our entire Catholic church with dome and cross. It is a magnificent sight, the walls sheeted with stalactites, and the floor meandered by those arabesque troughs of pure white in antique patterns, which are so common in the European states.

One of our party fired a rocket, which exploded as it struck the top of the towering dome, and amid the falling stars the detonation reverberated from side to side of the immense vault with the roar of a cannonade. A sheet of stalactite was struck, and it sounded with the clearness of a bell.

Four Roman candles were lighted and placed midway up the sides of the temple, which shed a faint illumination like the twilight stealing through the eastern horizon. Beyond this chamber and a little to the left was a narrow path between the almost perpendicular rocks. As we passed, Mr. Nesmith crept through an entrance near the floor, and holding his candle aloft (so that the light fell as from an invisible source) revealed a delightful little cave arched with snowy stalactites. In the middle rose a center table, covered with fringed folds and adorned with goblin knicknacks. It was the boudoir of some gnome or coquetish fairy. Two rocks standing beyond this retreat are the portals of another chamber, groined like the rest, in Gothic arches with tracery of purest stalactites, while the floor is paved with beautiful little globular stalagmites.

In a corner we found the skeleton head and body of a serpent of incredible size. The path beyond this is nearly blocked up by large quantities of timber, that in some remote day, found its way in from the river. Passing over these you attain another vaulted cathedral, bright as the rest with flashing stalactites, while its floor is covered knee deep with a strong iron water. This dark lake, lit up by the blaze of a dozen Roman candles, and reflecting the flashing walls of the cavern, would have made a picture for Barnum. Near this vault we found the skeleton, to all appearance of a man; his bones were white and dry; the hair, which had dropped carelessly from his head, was straight and of a blackish cast; his height must have been nearly eight feet, whether he was a lost traveler, an absconding debtor, a suicidal lover, or a wretched murderer seeking concealment from vindictive pursuers, no one can tell.

A short distance south from this we came to an iron door, which was fastened on the under side. After considerable delay, we managed to force it open and found that it led down another pair of iron steps into a large opening below, where we felt fresh air, blowing at times much more freely that at others. The party seemed delighted with the prospect ahead. After taking some refreshments, we renewed our anxious search for something new. We took a westerly direction, finding innumerable natural curiosities, such as fish, snakes, bats, buffalo horns and bones of all descriptions. In the crevices of the rocks overhead water kept a continual dropping, which formed something similar to icicles that frequently reached the bottom of the cavern. We could hear the current of the river washing the rock overhead, and could also hear the workmen on the piers of the railroad bridge now under construction. We had now penetrated about 5,000 feet into the interior of the earth, and Mr. Nesmith said that there were still innumerable chambers beyond. Our twine having run out we made a hasty retreat back to the mouth of the cave, where we again caught a glimse of daylight.

The excitement here has been great. Men, women and children apply for admittance at all hours of the day.

The title to the case is now in dispute. Richard Chute, the agent of the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Co., is at work digging a tunnel, beginning below the falls, with a view of tapping the cave. When completed it will drain the cave of water, and also make a valuable water-power. His plans are well matured and the work is going on rapidly. He has a patent stone drill that will cut a two-foot hole through the ledge to intersect the cave below, through which he can let in the light and construct his water wheels. He expects to have the tunnel ready for visitors by spring.

Mr. Boyd, a practical artist, formerly of Pittsburg, Pa., is now at work painting representations of the cave and its innumerable antiquities. As soon as he completes these his fortune is made.

Henry Day, son of George E. H. Day, Esq., of Washington, D. C., I understand, is busily engaged in writing a descriptive history of the whole thing, which will be read with deep interest. It will be sold only by his special agents. You would better secure a copy at once.

The rooms on the first floor of the cave are of white sandstone which forms a solid wall glazed over with a coating similar to a pound cake--the floors the same. The ceiling is self-supporting. The workmanship in these rooms is of a high order, showing that the square, plumb and compass must have been in use in those remote days. Many of the implements are much corroded--brass and silver not as much as iron.

Mr. Feelon, a merchant of this city, has a block of marble which he obtained from the cave. It was discolored, but he has cleaned it so that it looks like new. It has an opening in the centre like a door with a grapevine running up each side. Others have specimens of different kinds. Speculation is rampant as to the origin of the cavern and by what race inhabited.

Minnesota is still in her infancy, and there is no telling what may yet be found underneath her surface.

As my letter is becoming somewhat lengthy, I shall have to close without finishing it. You must excuse me for the present, and I shall remain,


     Thine, truly,


     LUTHER CHAMBERLIN.


Original letter written by David Edwards in 1867.


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