Cliff Cave

Indian Cave

Useful Information

Location: Cliff Cave County Park, Oakville.
(38.458658, -90.293819)
Open: Only with a permit.
Fee: No day use fees.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: bring torch
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Edmund Flagg (1838): The Far West, or, A Tour Beyond the Mountains. BookGoogle Books
J. Harlan Bretz (1956): Caves of Missouri, pp 436-437
Address: St. Louis County Parks and Recreation, 41 South Central, Clayton, MO 63105, Tel: 314-615-5000.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1749 John Baptiste D'Gamache receives cave and land in Spanish Land Grant.
1830s Cliff Cave Wine Company formed, masonry in cave erected, cave used as wine cellar.
1879 Cliff Cave Wine Company closed.
1910 Anheuser-Busch leased cave to store beer.
1963 highschool kids lost for two hours.
AUG-1965 Cave partially mapped.
1981-1982 surveyed by A. Marty, J. Marty, and S. Bielawski of the Missouri Geological Survey, Rolla.
13-APR-1993 two 17 year old boys get lost but find their way out of the cave.
23-JUL-1993 cave accident with six dead triggered the closure of the cave.


Cliff Cave is a famous cave, as it was the most easily accessible cave for the locals for a long time. Most caves in the Saint Louis area are obscure and locked beneath manhole covers. This cave is easy to find, even from the river. The limestone forms tall cliffs along the western banks of the Mississippi River, the cave created a sharp cleft, the now roofless lowest section of the cave. Following this valley the cave entrance is located at the upper end, where the cave river emerges from the cave portal. The entrance hall of the cave is huge and contains various traces of man, including graffities and a collapsed wall. This wall is a remains of the time when the cave was used as a wine cellar.

The cave was first used by the native Indians. Probably this is the reason why it was originally called Indian Cave. They left flint waste flakes embedded in the clay floor of the entrance. The cave was used during the Archaic Period (7000 to 1000 BC).

Later, during the 18th century, French fur trappers operated a tavern here and the cave was used as a beer cellar. During the 19th century it was a cellar for the Cliff Cave Winery. In the early 20th century it was a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The cave was used by cattle rustlers, Confederate soldiers, and mobsters during the centuries. In times when it was not used in any way it offered a hideout for teenagers to party.

The frequent visitation of a river cave was not without problems. On incident happened in 1963 when 75 highschool kids went into the cave. One 18-year-old was lost for two hours, and the owner, Mr. H. Harold Pettus was furious. He requested the County Police to blast shut the entrance, which they actually considered. Fortunately it was not done, the results of blocking an underground waterway could be disastrous.

The cave was closed after a tragedy, six people lost their lives in a flash-flood. On 23-JUL-1993 four counselors and 16 boys from St. Joseph's Home for Boys entered Cliff Cave. The school had made numerous visits to the cave, but this time none of the counselors had experience in the cave. They actually made the classical mistake with river caves: there was a flash flood warning in effect, but the day was sunny, so they entered the cave anyway. This would probably not have been deadly, but there were additional important mistakes made. No experienced caver with the party, not enough flashlights, poor orientation in the cave, so they went right when they should have gone left. In result, they were not able to find the exit fast enough and six drowned.

As a result the cave entrance was barred by a chain-link fence. Today it is closed and can be entered only by permit (and with a key) from the St. Louis County Dept. of Parks and Recreation. This prevents further spraying and illegal digs. The closure is also to protect the bats which live in the cave, the Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the Eastern Pippistrelle (Pippistrellus subflavus).

Cliff Cave County Park offers numerous short trails, showing the karst landscape with its dolines and caves and offering views of the Mississippi River.

A few miles below the [Jefferson] Barracks, along the river-bank, is situated quite a remarkable cave. I visited and explored it one fine afternoon, with a number of friends. With some difficulty, after repeated inquiry, we succeeded in discovering the object of our search, and from a neighbouring farmhouse furnished ourselves with lights and a guide. The latter was a German, who, according to his own account, had been something of a hero in his way and day; he was with Napoleon at Moscow, and was subsequently taken prisoner by Blucher's Prussian Lancers at Waterloo, having been wounded in the knee by a musket-ball. To our edification he detailed a number of his "moving accidents by flood and field." A few steps from the farmhouse brought us to the mouth of the cavern, situated in the face of a ragged limestone precipice nearly a hundred feet high, and the summit crowned with trees and shrubbery ; it forms the abrupt termination to a ravine, which, united to another coming in on the right, continues on to the river, a distance of several hundred yards, through a wood. The entrance to the cave is exceedingly rough and rugged, piled with huge fragments of the cliff which have fallen from above, and it can be approached only with difficulty. It is formed, indeed, by the rocky bed of a stream flowing out from the cave's mouth, inducing the belief that to this circumstance the-ravine owes its origin. The entrance is formed by a broad arch about twenty feet in altitude, with twice that breadth between the abutments. As we entered, the damp air of the cavern swept out around us chill and penetrating. An abrupt angle of the wall soon shut out the daylight, and we advanced by the light of our candles. The floor, and roof, and sides of the cavern became exceedingly irregular as we proceeded, and, after penetrating to the depth of several hundred yards, the floor and ceiling approached each other so nearly that we were forced to pursue our way upon our hands and knees. In some chambers the roof and walls assumed grotesque and singular shapes, caused by the water trickling through the porous limestone. In one apartment was to be seen the exact outline of a human foot of enormous size; in another, that of an inverted boat; while the vault in a third assumed the shape of an immense coffin. The sole proprietors of the cavern seemed the bats, and of these the number was incredible. In some places the reptiles suspended themselves like swarms of bees from the roof and walls; and so compactly one upon the other did they adhere, that scores could have been crushed at a blow. After a ramble of more than an hour within these shadowy realms, during which several false passages upon either side, soon abruptly terminating, were explored, we at length once more emerged to the light and warmth of the sunbeams, thoroughly drenched by the dampness of the atmosphere and the water dripping from the roof.

Text from Edmund Flagg (1838): The Far West, or, A Tour Beyond the Mountains.