Episode 9: Luray Caverns

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This week we head to Virginia to visit Luray Caverns, the most highly decorated caverns in the world according to the Smithsonian. In this episode, we hear from three professionals who share the history of the caverns, the science behind the decorating formations, and how The Great Stalacpipe Organ creates music.

Phantom Chasers

Luray Caverns was discovered on August 13th, 1878 by three local men: Andrew J. Campbell (a local tinsmith), William Campbell, and local photographer Benton Stebbins. These fellows were prospecting for a show cave as they knew of a cave in southern Virginia that was open and giving tours. If they could find a cave, they too could make some money.

They spent a whole summer looking at every sinkhole on every farmer's land, all around town. The townspeople thought they were crazy, calling them “Phantom Chasers”. Eventually, the group came across one particular sinkhole. When they put their hands down, they felt cool air coming out of a quarter-size hole in the ground. They enlarged the hole enough for one man, Andrew Campbell, to slide down on a rope with a candle in hand. They discovered what they were looking for, one of the largest caverns in the world.

The Science of Cavern Decor

Cavern formations are created when water on the surface infiltrates into the ground. It picks up minerals that are in the soil and rock as it seeps into the earth.

Eventually, it enters the cavern system through microscopic pores in the rock. As the water drips and flows in, it deposits those minerals along the ceilings, walls, and floors. And over many, many years those minerals build up and reconstitute into these larger formations.
On average, scientists estimate that formations at Luray take around 120 years to grow one cubic inch. The largest formation in the cavern system is 40 feet tall, 120 feet in circumference at the base, and is an estimated seven and a half million years old. It’s called the Giant Redwood Tree as it resembles the trunk of a giant Sequoia.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

Mr. Leland Sprinkles brought his son to Luray Caverns for his fifth birthday. At the time, tour guides would play a tune on the stalactites and stalagmites by striking them with a mallet. This gave Mr. Sprinkles, an engineer and organist, the idea to create a playable organ using the cave’s formations. With an agreement over a handshake, Sprinkles began developing the organ.

He would scout for tones by striking the formations and pick those that were closest. Then he would tune them to concert pitch by sanding them down. It was first played in 1957 and is still in use today. It covers three and a half acres, making it the world’s largest natural musical instrument!
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