Missouri, sometimes called the Cave State, is home to more than 7,300 documented caves. At least twenty of them are Show Caves.
The first Show Cave in Missouri was the Mark Twain Cave near Hannibal, and its first organized guided tour was in 1886.
The cave was discovered in the winter of 1819-20 by Jack Simms, his brothers William and Roderick, and their friend J.H. Buchanan. The cave was named Simms Cave originally, then called Panther Cave because Simms had been tracking a panther when he found the cave's entrance. From 1830-1848, the cave, like many others, was called Saltpeter Cave because of its supply of potassium nitrate, which is saltpeter, a necessary ingredient for making gun powder.
Surgeon Joseph Nash McDowell purchased the cave in 1848 and renamed it McDowell Cave. He was seeking a place of quiet solitude while he experimented on dead bodies. Samuel Clemens, the future Mark Twain, was about 13 at the time and spent many happy hours exploring the cave. Much of what he saw was renamed and used in his books about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Dr. McDowell owned the cave until about 1868.
It was next sold to R.H. Stillwell and Zachariah Fielder who owned the Hannibal Brick Plant. After the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” came out in 1880, the name of the cave was changed to the Mark Twain Cave and the property was developed for visitors. A dance pavilion, horse racing track, baseball diamond, picnic area, ice house for their new soda stand and a ticket office about the size of an outhouse were added. It was very popular. Stillwell and Fielder, along with John East made an additional improvement in 1890 by blasting out the entrance and making it larger.
The cave was sold 10 years later to John S. Mainland. He wanted to add transportation from town by extending the Hannibal Street Car Line with electric car tracks out beyond the city limits. Decent roads and the Model T beat him to it.
The Mark Twain Cave was sold again in 1923 to a neighboring dairy farmer, John Cameron, who already had conducted tours through his own cave. The Camerons discovered another cave that was even more elaborate two years later on the opposite hill across from the Mark Twain Cave.
The Camerons continued to make improvements to the property. Today, the Mark Twain Cave Complex has a winery that serves Missouri wines made only from Missouri grapes.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri's upcoming Bicentennial, she syndicated her column statewide in September 2018 and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org