Courtesy of Mark Twain Cave
The First Show Cave
Of the more than 6,000 caves in the Cave State of Missouri, one of the farthest caves to the north is Mark Twain Cave. Discovered in 1819, it was originally named McDowell’s Cave by Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, the first owner and a well-respected Missouri physician and surgeon who lived and worked in nearby Hannibal.
But it was another Hannibal resident, author Samuel Clemens, who made the cave famous around the world. He included references to it in several of his famous books, even though many who have read them do not realize the cave actually exists.
Clemens moved to Hannibal in 1839 when he was 4, and the cave was a place he frequently explored and played in as a boy. Writing as Mark Twain, he created the fictional characters Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Injun Joe who relived Clemens’s own experiences of getting lost inside the cave in his first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876.
As a result, by 1886 so many people were coming to Hannibal on sightseeing trips that the cave was the first in Missouri to be opened commercially, and tours have continued for 119 years. Tour guides talk about the geology of the cave and point out the locations corresponding to Twain’s written accounts.
One of the author’s more macabre stories that has been highlighted by tour guides was described in his autobiography, where he penned: “The cave was an uncanny place, for it contained a corpse — the corpse of a young girl of fourteen.” Surprisingly, it was the daughter of Dr. McDowell. He had placed the corpse, after her death from pneumonia, in a copper cylinder filled with alcohol to see if a body could be petrified in such a manner.
Although Mark Twain Cave has the distinction of being Missouri’s first “show cave,” it’s not the only one in the area. Just a few hundred feet away is Cameron Cave, which was discovered in 1925 by the Cameron family, who had purchased Mark Twain Cave two years earlier. The Cameron family still resides in Hannibal and continues to own both caves. Cameron Cave opened to the public in 1976 and is still the most recent Missouri cave to open to the public.
Clemens would have had fun exploring it as well. Like Mark Twain Cave, it is a maze cave, characterized by a repetitive pattern of underground corridors that intersect much like city streets. However, within Cameron, the network of short passages is exceptionally dense. In a surface area of just a few acres, there are more than 480 passages covering four and a half miles. Mark Twain Cave has 260 subterranean passageways that crisscross for six and a half miles. Because of their unique formation, both caves were designated National Natural Landmarks in 1978.
According to Gary Berdeaux, a spokesman for the National Caves Association, the pattern of underground corridors originated when the area was covered by a large sea millions of years ago. “The earth’s plates collided, and the water drained away through fissures in the limestone that formed and relieved the stress on the surface,” he says. “The pattern is much like the cracks that form on an eggshell when it is broken or on the surface of a dried-up pond.”
Unlike Mark Twain Cave, which is electrified, Cameron Cave remains undisturbed and has never been lighted. Tours are made using several lanterns to illuminate the underground stone corridors, which at only three to seven feet wide can make some visitors claustrophobic, and are quite a bit narrower than those in the Mark Twain Cave. Just past the cave entrance, lantern light frequently reveals bats hanging a few feet overhead.