Marvel Cave


Useful Information

Location: Branson, Missouri.
I 65 exit Branson, Hwy 76 W to Branson West.
(36.667669, -93.339674)
Open: Very complicated, check official website for details.
[2022]
Fee: Adults USD 71, Children (4-11) USD 69, Children (0-3) free, Seniors (65+) USD 69.
[2022]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension:  
Guided tours: D=60 min, VR=154 m, St=700, Max=45.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: S. Fred Prince (1895): The Ozarkian Uplift and Marvel Caverns,
Address: Silver Dollar City, 399 Silver Dollar City Pkwy, Branson, MO 65616, Tel: +1-417-338-8220, Free: 800-888-7277.
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.

History

1500 the Osage Indians already knew about Marvel Cave and called it The Devil's Den because of the strange sounds.
1541 Spanish explorers explored the cave searching for treasures and the fountain of youth.
1869 a group of miners led by Henry T. Blow from St. Louis explores the cave looking for lead ore.
1882 exploration by the entrepreneurs T. Hodges Jones and Truman S. Powell of Barton County.
1884 property bought by T. Hodges Jones and Marble Cave Mining and Manufacturing Company founded.
1889 guano mined out, Marble Cave Mining closed.
30-OCT-1889 cave bought by Canadian entrepreneur William Henry Lynch.
1893 S. Fred Prince surveyed the cave.
1894 opened to the public.
1927 William Lynch died, the cave was renamed Marvel Cave by his daughters.
1950 Hugo Herschend, a Danish immigrant from Chicago, leased the cave.
1957 narrow gauge funicular to transport cave visitors back to the surface installed.
1960 the Herschends added the Silver Dollar City theme park with an 1880s Ozark Mountain Village.
2006 Lantern Tour started.

Description

Marvel Cave is a show cave in the middle of a 19th century themed Theme Park. To visit the cave you have to buy a ticket for the park, the cave tour and all other rides are included in the rather steep ticket price.

The cave was known to the ingenious Osage Indians, they named it Devil's Den because of the sounds the hole makes. According to a legend a young hunter once fell down the cave's main entrance after he speared a bear and both fell into a dark hole. It is a huge daylight shaft and so it was necessary to climb down a vertical wall, and it seems the Osage never actually entered it. When the cave was explored a few remains of a Spanish exploration in 1541 were discovered, who probably built simple wooden ladders for the descent. There are stories that they were searching for treasures and the fountain of youth, but that's most likely cave guide lore, as they left no report. It's an adaption of the Ponce de León story. We are also not convinced that the date is supported by anything but guesses. And of course there is a legend that the Spanish buried gold in the cave.

The mid 19th century saw roving Bushwhackers and outlaws, and a legend tells they were named Bald Knobbers and were known for throwing people through the sinkhole. So they could get rid of their victims for good. The whole story is obviously made up for the tour, although some facts are true. The Bald Knobbers formed around 1883 and were active in neighbouring counties, and they even had "unofficial chapters" in other counties. However, the story makes no sense as the dead bodies would have been found during the exploration or at least during the development as a show cave.

The first serious expedition into Marvel Cave was led by Henry T. Blow from St. Louis in 1869. As he was a lead industry magnate, he was in search of minerals and ores, especially lead ores. The party traveled by horseback to the entrance and lowered themselves more than 60 m deep down into the cave, they spent hours inside the cave. The party consisted of Henry T. Blow and six lead miners. Studying the walls carefully, they searched for signs of mineral deposits, but they reported that no valuable ore at all was found. They described a "bottomless pit" where they threw rocks in but heard no sounds. It is thought this was the Gulf of Doom, a deep shaft at the end of the Shoe Room. They also started the legend of marble in the cave, as they were convinced that the flat ceiling of the Shoe Room consisted of marble. As a result the locals started to call the cave Marble Cave.

The next exploration in 1882 was made by the entrepreneurs T. Hodges Jones and Truman S. Powell of Barton County. They also found no lead ores, just bat guano, and again they were convinced they saw marble at the ceiling of the Shoe Room. As a result they founded the Marble Cave Mining and Manufacturing Company to mine the marble. They hired a geologist, who proved that the marble was actually limestone. So they mined out the guano and sold it for $700 a ton, it was used as a fertilizer and to produce gunpowder. The used mining techniques from the lead mines including ore carts which were pulled by by donkeys to the Cathedral Room. A pulley system lifted the carts out of the cave. The Marble Cave Mining Company ceased all operations after four and a half years, when all the guano was mined out. But the left trail, staircases, and the small settlement at the cave entrance which was founded as Marble City and later called Marmaros. It had a hotel, general store, a pottery shop, and a stagecoach stop. Quite astonishing: it also had a white oak furniture factory, and we have no idea what that is and why they do not call it a carpentry workshop. And another weird thing, the town was only rumored to have a saloon, one would think if they have a hotel they should have a saloon too. However, after the mining ended it became a ghost town.

In 1893 the cave was bought by the Canadian entrepreneur William Henry Lynch. He was miner and dairyman, but why he actually bought the site is unclear, but he actually bought a small town and the cave had been advertised as "full of pre-historic bones". And when he finally arrived, the town was burned to the ground by the Bald Knobbers and nobody wanted to buy the bones, he finally donated them to a museum. So he decided to convert the cave into a show cave, probably the first in the Ozarks. The cave was opened to the public in 1894 and is open as a show cave since then, which makes it the oldest continuously running show cave in the Ozarks.

He asked the famous artist and scientist S. Fred Prince to survey the cave. Prince developed instruments for this job, pitched a tent in the Cathedral Room, built a stone fireplace, and lived there for a week, or even a month at a time. It took him two years to survey the entire cave, while the cave was developed at the same time. Prince continued to explore the cave, map new discoveries and guide people through the cave for decades, until the death of Lynch. He tried to change the name to Marvel Cave, "for Marble was untrue! Marvel was all truth, and dignity...". But the owner William Lynch resisted. After his death in 1927, the cave's name was changed by his daughters, as suggested by Prince long before.

The land with the cave was leased from the Lynch sisters for 99 years by the Herschend family in 1950. The last sister, Genevieve Lynch, died in 1972 and bequeathed the cave to the College of the Ozarks and the First Presbyterian Church of Branson. But the lease is not affected by this.

Hugo Herschend was an immigrant from Denmark and had worked as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Chicago. Until then the tour was actually climbing down a 30 m high ladder and the following the various trails with a lantern, with only some wooden stairs at dangerous points. The family started to develop it, adding concrete paths and stairs, and the tower with staircases which leads from surface to the top of the debris pile. One problem was, that visitors had to walk all the way back to the surface at the end of the tour, which was quite exhausting. So they installed a narrow gauge funicular in 1957, which transports visitors from the end of the tour back to the surface until today. It is quite unique as the passage has a curve, which is uncommon for funiculars, and the Army Corps of Engineers told them that it could not be built. They built it anyway.

When the show cave was completed, they thought about the visitors waiting for a tour. The basic idea was to give them something to do, while earning additional money with other attraction. There were the ruins of Marmaros at the cave entrance, which they revived by erecting an 1880s Ozark Mountain Village. It was opened to the public in 1960. At first there was only a post office, a general store, a blacksmith, and a glassblower. This sounds more like a sort of open air museum than a theme park, but soon "attractions" and "rides" were added. It was named Silver Dollar City because of an advertising campaign, where silver dollars were given as change to the tourists who came to visit the cave.

The cave is a daylight shaft or pothole, entered by a long set of staircases in a tower, then the trail descends on a talus slope to the floor of the chamber. The shaft opens like a bell to form Cathedral Room, which is said to be the largest cave entrance room in the United States. It really is a cathedral of impressive size, it is 62 m high, 125 m long and 69 m wide, though we never heard of this special ranking before. The floor of the chamber is about 70 m below the surface. The tour now follows a cave passage then down another flight of staircases called the corkscrew to the deepest point of the tour which is the Waterfall Room 154 m below the surface. More staircases called Huff and Puff Staircase lead up another shaft until finally the lower station of the "cable train" at a depth of 66 m is reached. It seems the term funicular was too dull, so they invented their own name. However, the funicular from 1957 still works very well and transports the visitors back to the surface in a 3-minute ride.

There is a second tour called Lantern Light Tour, where cave guides wear period costumes and the electric light is off. Oil lanterns are used, the way early explorers did. The tour is different from the regular tour as it includes Mammoth Room, which was part of the tour until 1950. As it was not modernized for 70 years there is no electric light and the trails are a little rough. Highlights are the Bat Wall and the Spanish ladder, said to be a remnant of the Spanish exploration in 1541, the last one remaining in the cave. This tour departs once daily 90 minutes before the park closes and costs an additional fee. As the tours and also the number of participants are limited, you should buy the tickets well in advance. However, the last time we checked the official website, the lantern tour was no longer mentioned, so we assume that it is no longer offered.

Over half a century the park has grown, but the cave is still the same. Today it is only one of dozens of attractions of the park, and we guess most visitors never heard about the cave before they visited the park. Most people will visit the theme park, typically by arriving in the morning when it opens and leaving in the evening, checking out all the rides included in the day pass. But since we first reviewed the cave almost 30 years ago we were irritated by the complex open hours of the park, and it has become worse. They have now six different day schedules which are shuffled erratically over the year, and most of the year the park is closed for two days per week. The only way to communicate this is by using a calendar with colour coding, which looks to us like modern art. The best way to find out the actual open hours is by going to their website and entering the date you plan to visit. They easily won our award for the most complicated opening hours, with such a large lead over all competitors that any more detailed analysis was superfluous. Why visitors are maltreated by complicated opening hours when the park is actually financed by them is incomprehensible to us. Sounds like WikipediaCartmanland.