July 12, 2020

The Intriguing Story of Cathedral Cave

Dud Clark had been contracted to build a road from Prescott to Ash Fork, when Lee Burhans called out to him. “Burhans was a member of a picnic party and was going through a large cave that had been well known for years, when he found a small opening that he had never before perceived,” the paper described. Peering through the hole with a match, he noticed that this opening was just below the roof of a large cavity. Lee got Dud, who then lowered a rope and descended to the cave floor with an “automobile lamp.” When he turned it on, his jaw went slack.

He found himself standing in a “grotto filled with dazzling white columns.” Before him stood “some of the most awe-inspiring works of nature, in the form of stalactites and stalagmites, that the eve of man ever beheld,” the paper declared. 

Even more shocking was the material on the floor. It “was well stocked with ordinary domestic, (prehistoric) utensils… Implements and pottery were strewn about in profusion. 'One of the greatest collections of relics of primitive times that was ever on earth can be taken,'” he said. Unfortunately, that’s probably exactly what happened. 

Another immediate find was more macabre. “From the floor (Dud) Clark picked up human bones and articles which, to him, indicated that the cave had been used as a burial ground,” the paper stated. “Mr. Clark has explored many burying grounds…and here found the same evidences of careful disposition of the dead that he observed elsewhere.” Dud predicted “that the grotto will become one of the most noted wonders of Arizona.” Due to the vault-like ceiling of the cavity, they decided to name the place “Cathedral Cave.”

Soon after, on Sunday May 21, 1911, an exploration party was organized “and was equipped with every facility necessary for its thorough exploitation,” the paper reported. Fifteen people in total made the visit including “official photographer" Erwin Baer. “Considerable difficulty was met with at the orifice, which is but 16 inches wide, consisting of two pieces of flat rock extending from the surface in an oblique direction for 8 feet and terminating in space.”


“A rough step ladder and rope was rigged from the surface to the termination of the oblique entrance and another ladder was placed at its end, extending about 30 feet down to the floor of the cave at a point about 50 feet from its back wall.” They took rough measurements finding the space to be about 300 feet long, 85 feet wide and 60-80 feet high. They studied the cave for 3 hours and placed notices “in the cave and adjacent to its mouth, warning vandals of Uncle Sam’s dire vengeance should any of its beauties be injured, destroyed or removed.”

Although this discovery put the cave “on the map,” it was not the first time the cave had been found during the anglo age. Graffiti inside the cave reveals one signature dated 1905. 

After the public was informed of the site, a parade of automobile tourists would arrive over the course of the next quarter-century. Back then cars did not travel at “highway speeds.” Depending on road conditions, strip to Ash Fork could take 8 hours. Visiting the Cave provided a pleasant and interesting spot to break-up the long trip. The Chamber of Commerce regularly advertised the Cathedral Cave as a sight to see while visiting for Frontier Days.

In July, 1911, a group of 13 officials from Prescott and 30 from Ash Fork and Seligman met at Cathedral Cave. First was a tour of the cave. “All the ladies, with the exception of (one,) descended and remained with the party until the exploration was concluded,” the paper reported. She was not left alone, but was accompanied by one man who’s “girth at the apex of his corporation was too great to allow a safe decent without the use of explosives to widen the opening to the cavern.” 

It was an opportunity to “network” and build relationships. “County Assessor (and future Governor) Tom Campbell voiced the sentiment of the Prescott bunch when he stated that this occasion would be a means of further cementing the good feeling existing between the two communities, whose position and resources render them so dependable upon each other's friendship,” the paper wrote.

“Chester Dickerson responded for the Ash Fork contingent. He predicted that this would be but the first of a series of get together functions, to weld these relations further.” 

In early June 1912, dynamite was used to expand the opening and a “strong ladder” was bolted at the entrance. It was later that same month when further exploration revealed a second cave. It was filled with thousands of stalactites “as small as pencils and many are several feet in length. In places columns rise from floor to ceiling and often the stone is colored with the soft blues and reds of the Canyon,” the paper described. “This cave is from 50 to 75 feet wide and about 700 feet long.”

“One of the caves has a large opening that a horse can be driven into, the other has a very small opening and it is necessary to crawl through the opening and down a 25 foot ladder, this cave is much more interesting than the larger,” the Williams paper decided. “The satellite formation of certain parts of the Cave are very beautiful, but one should be equipped with a reflecting lantern or electric flash lamp to see the cave in all its beauty as candles do not penetrate the intense darkness and reflect on the high walls to the best advantage.” 

Car club pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon from Prescott and points south often included a visit to the Cathedral Caves. Once 19 cars traveled together from the Grand Canyon and took a side trip there. “The party was astounded with the wonderful creation…a marvel of underground existence, and which was without a counterpart in the nation of its character. The scene was a fitting climax to the wonderful work of nature presented in the Grand Canyon, and will be referred to often in the future,” the Journal-Miner promised. 

In 1915 a statewide campaign of “See Arizona First” included the caves. “The attractions for tourists are unlimited,” the Bisbee paper declared. “The Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest, ice caves, cliff dwellings, Cathedral Cave and cave houses are all worth visiting.”

By 1922 permanent ladders were installed, but by the time the Great Depression hit, tourism fell off generally. Whether the ladders were permanent or not, liability must have eventually become an issue. Additionally, as time went on, the cave’s importance to science was realized and it was eventually closed to the public, which is still the case today.

“The Cathedral Cave Preserve is (today) a privately owned speleological research and educational preserve. (Their) primary goals are to protect, explore and study this unique cave and karst system,” their website explains. “Note that the preserve is on private property and is only accessible via designated guides. To control access, the cave and property has been gated, and there is an on-site caretaker 24/7. A variety of conservation projects are active including speleothem repair, trailing, resource management and property cleanup.” 

The site has been and continues to be studied by archeologists, biologists, botanists, geologists, paleontologists, historians and cave surveyors. 

Indeed, one new species was discovered there: the “Pratherodesmus ecclesia” or the “Cathedral Cave Millipede.”

School tours and educational outreach presentations have been conducted. Here is their website: http://cathedralcave.org/index.htm


NOW ENJOY: Horsethief Basin: Heart of a Rustlin’ Racket

The history of Horsethief Basin, AZ. including its shady past, failed plans to make it a resort, and how it became a recreational area in the Prescott National Forest.


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Bisbee Daily Review, 6/3/1911; Pg. 1.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 5/24/1911; Pg. 4, Col. 7.


Weekly Journal-Miner, 7/26/1911; Pg. 6.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 4/24/1912; Pg. 6.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/5/1912; Pg. 6.

Arizona Republican, 6/13/1912; Pg. 3.

Williams News 5/7/1914; Pg. 1.

Weekly Journal-Miner, 6/19/1912; Pg. 2.

Arizona Republican, 2/5/1922 Sec, 4, Pg. 4.


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