The long and rich history of the colossal cave
TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) – “It’s about 3.5 miles of cave system here. We do the tours about half a mile from that,” said Antonio Moreno.
He knows the Colossal Grotto well. Moreno guides visitors through the cave system as a Cave Lead.
Located in the foothills of the Rincon Mountains at the end of the Old Spanish Trail, up to 50,000 people visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park each year.
Formed a few hundred million years ago, the cave system was used by native tribes around a thousand years ago. There is still evidence of a hearth and smoke residue near the entrance to the cave.
Fast forward to the 1870s. According to Tucson historian David Leighton, the area became known as the Mountain Springs Ranch, which featured a stagecoach stop and a hotel.
“Around 1879, a guy named Solomon Lick took over the Mountain Springs Ranch,” Leighton said. “On one of his tours around his property, he discovered an opening he thought was a mine, which turned out to be what we now call the Colossal Cave.”
At the time, Solomon Lick’s discovery was known as “The Mountain Spring Cave”. Eight years later, in 1887, the cave played a major role in what has become the “Legend of the Lost Loot”.
According to Leighton’s research, three men robbed the same Southern Pacific train twice in four months. They escaped with thousands of dollars in coins, gold and silver. The sheriff and his troop tracked the bandits to the cave. After a shooting, only one of the train thieves survived. According to legend, he spent almost two decades in prison in Yuma and never confessed where the treasure was.
It is not clear what happened to the stolen loot. People are still on the lookout to this day.
In 1905, the cave was actually mined for its bat guano, which was used as a fertilizer. In 1917, it earned its larger-than-life name. A scout named Lynn Hodgson has been invited by a potential developer to explore the cave.
“After exploring the cave for a while he came out and when asked about it he said ‘the cave was colossal’,” Leighton explained. “From this statement, the name Colossal Cave is believed to have come.”
Another theory, Leighton told KGUN 9, is that former UAE President Byron Cummings gave him his name. Whatever the origin, once inside you will quickly understand why it is called Colossal Cave and why it is a welcome relief from the heat.
“The temperature remains around 71 degrees in our cave,” said cellar master Antonio Moreno. “With humidity generally around 60%. Due to all the monsoon we’ve had this year, it’s hitting around 83% right now.”
While the nearby Kartchner Caverns are known as a Living Wet Cave, the Colossal Cave is either a dry or dead cave. Moreno said the near-record monsoon woke up the cave a bit.
You’ll find many of the same types of formations in the Colossal Cave and Kartchner Caverns, such as the Drapery Room.
“Call it that because of the nice formation behind me here. It looks like curtains or curtains,” Moreno said.
A big part of visiting the Colossal Cave is education. Moreno hopes that with knowledge will come the conservation of the cave.
“I like to keep this part of Tucson, a big part of Tucson, as long as we can keep it and try to make sure that no damage happens here,” he said. “Of course there will always be a tiny bit of it, but to make sure it lasts forever.”
The Great Depression of the early 1930s actually helped create the Colossal Cave. The Civil Conservation Corps. was created to provide jobs for the unemployed. The CCC built the roads in the park as well as the walkways in the cave.