The History Of Mystic Caverns
Mystic Caverns is a commercially operated show cave located on the Newton County and Boone County line in North-Central Arkansas. It is near Marble Falls, AR and 8 miles south of Harrison, AR.
This region of the Ozark Mountains is believed to have been settled in the 1830’s. Marble Falls was at that time the community of Wilcockson, which boasted a large population in the late 1800’s.
The original sinkhole entrance to Mystic was a dirt slope leading to a 10 foot drop into the cave. We assume that early settlers were aware of this entrance and that the cave was visited prior to 1850. Pine torches were likely used for exploration at that time. The earliest physical evidence of visitors dates back to 1919. A gentleman by the name of Adam Kolbe carved his name and the date on a formation. It reads:
April 6, 1919
followed by what looks like his signature. During this time the cave was known as "Mansion Cave" for its large, open chambers. The exact date Mystic was opened on a commercial basis is unknown. However, we do know that tours began a few years before 1928.
The land owners, Jim & Bob Gurley, installed a wooden ladder into the sinkhole entrance and leveled the cave floors to establish trails and opened it to the public for the first time. The tours were conducted by the Gurleys with kerosene lanterns as a light source.
The cave was now called "Wild Horse Cave" for a hand-carved, wooden horse which stood near the ticket office. The ticket office was located a few hundred feet south of the present Mystic Caverns sign, and on the east side of the highway.
Visitors were led across the dirt road to a crude trail which led down, then back up the steep Mill Creek canyon, and then further up the hill to the cave entrance. An interesting history note to mention at this point is that Mystic could have very well been the second cave in Arkansas to open commercially.
Onyx Cave in Eureka Springs was the first opened to the public in 1893, followed by Diamond Cave (Jasper), in 1925, and Cosmic Caverns (Berryville,) in 1927. If Mystic was in fact open for tours prior to 1925, it would indeed be the second commercially operated cave in the state of Arkansas.
Around 1930 the cave was purchased by Mr. Stringer who operated it commercially for several years. It was billed under its original name of "Wild Horse Cave". Visitors still entered the cave by climbing down a rickety wooden ladder. Mr. Stringer issued a pair of coveralls to each visitor and kerosene lamps. Some of the soot damage in Mystic was probably caused by the kerosene lamps.
In 1937-38 Mystic was owned by Jerry Cannon and managed by Mose Arnold. Admission was $ .25 and still included coveralls and lantern. By this time a swinging bridge had been built over Mill Creek Canyon. It eliminated the exhausting hike down and back up the steep canyon to reach the cave entrance. Now, steep concrete steps had replaced the homemade wooden ladder at the entrance. A rope hung beside the entrance as an aid to visitors descending into the cave.
Around 1938, the cave’s owner was forced to halt commercial tours by some type of state official. It is believed the cave was closed due to the dangerous condition of the steep entrance steps, and a dubious area near the entrance where a gravel slide could occur at anytime. The cave remained closed to the general public from 1938-1949. During this time the cave was open to anyone and it was visited by many locals. It is believed that the majority of the breakage occurred during this period. At this time, cave formations were in great demand by rock shops who in turn sold them to tourists visiting the area.
In 1949 the cave was purchased by area resident Albert Raney, Sr.. Although no records are available regarding who owned the property at that time, we believe it was purchased from previous owner, Jerry Cannon. Albert Raney soon realized the potential for the cave. Highway 7 was being paved for the first time and would most certainly dramatically increase the number of tourists visiting the area. He began to re-commercialize the cave.
He first removed the rotted wood and other debris that were left over from its former trails, steps, etc. He then created a spiraling path down the sinkhole entrance, with concrete steps where the slope was steep. The trails throughout the cave were leveled and then covered with lime to harden them. For the first time electric lighting was installed in the cave along with concrete steps with handrails where the trails were steep.
After the cave was finished in 1950, the Raney family built a new rock and frame house/ticket office on the west side of Highway 7, approximately 1000 feet north of the cave. The house was still standing in 1984 but has since burned down. A road was bulldozed from the ticket office across Mill Creek Canyon, then up the hill to the cave. The cave was then opened to the public for the first time under the name "Mystic Caverns". In 1959 Albert Raney, Sr. turned the cave over to his son Albert Raney, Jr.. Albert Jr. ran the cave until 1966 with family and friends as guides.
In 1966 the newly created Dogpatch theme park purchased the cave from the Raneys with the idea of making the cave a part of the theme park. Further development began on the cave and the immediate area. A well known caver, Jim Schermerhorn supervised much of the work at this time. Jim was one of the original Dogpatch shareholders.
Surface improvements included:
- Building an easy access road across Mill Creek Canyon and up to the cave.
- Building a large parking lot.
- Building a new ticket office/gift shop near the cave entrance.
- Landscaping the immediate area surrounding the cave.
Improvements to the cave included:
- A manmade entrance tunnel that was created to replace the spiral path and steps that led down the "old" sinkhole entrance.
- The tour route was slightly rearranged and excellent rock walkways and steps replaced the old trails.
- Welded pipe handrails covered with plastic water pipe were installed.
- The cave’s lighting system was replaced with a modern, indirect lighting design.
- During 1967-1968 the current driveway was built leading to existing gift shop/ticket office, fill dirt was cut from the side of the hill with a bulldozer to cover the ravine where the driveway is now.
Jim Schermerhorn was operating the bulldozer when the blade broke through into an opening. He immediately stopped the bulldozer, took his flashlight and crawled down into the opening to explore. What he found was a spectacular, undisturbed cavern, originally called "Old Man Moses Cave", now called "Crystal Dome". Mr. Schermerhorn camped out at the site until they were able to gate the opening, thus preserving this discovery and enabling visitors today to tour a living cave in its pristine state, with over 90% of the formations still growing. In 1968 Dogpatch re-opened the much improved attraction under the new name "Dogpatch Caverns". They originally planned on opening the newly-discovered Crystal Dome Caverns, (Old Man Moses Cave), at this time but they never finished this project.
In 1981 Dogpatch sold the caves to a local businessman and Bruce Raney, the son of Albert Raney, Jr., managed the caves. It reopened as Mystic Caverns. During 1981, the Crystal Dome project was completed and opened in August.
Omni Properties, Inc. bought Mystic Caverns and Crystal Dome in 1984 and hired Burt Allen to manage the property.
Steven Rush purchased Mystic Caverns and Crystal in March 1988. The caves were managed by Jennifer Updegraff, Steven Rush and Marcia Johnson.
On June 1, 1997 Steven Rush sold the Mystic Caverns and Crystal Dome business to Mystic Caverns, Inc. and leased them the property. The caves are currently managed by Steven and Brenda Rush.