The Cave Keepers

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on December 17, 2000

Not everyone has (or wants) the opportunity to own a cave, but Sam and Janie Morgan thought West Virginias Organ Cave was special. Its 40 miles of mapped passageways make it one of the largest in the country; it is the geological and historical wonder of Greenbrier County; and Sams family had once owned it for 91 years (until 1925).

The Morgans were cattle farmers, but when the cave came up for sale in a 1997 estate auction, Janie Morgan suggested they buy it.

We arent cave people, were cattle people, argued husband Sam. Janie countered that by purchasing the tourist attraction they could diversify against recent low cattle pricesbut her real motive was emotional. The couple had grown up around the big cave in Ronceverte (pop. 1,711), and Janie felt the cave should stay in local hands. Sam Morgans enthusiasm soon matched his wifes, so on auction day they bought the cave for $253,000.

When youre in the cattle business for 30 years, youve got to gamble, Sam explained later.

Things got worse.

We had not been in (the cave) for several years and didnt go in before the sale, says Janie. When the couple, as owners, walked the cave and grounds in November 1997, they found dilapidated fixtures, no bathrooms and no running water on site, and no fixed schedule for cave tours.

Step one was a business loan to get the cave back in operation.

Organ Cavenamed for a calcite formation that resembles a pipe organhas a rich history and had been open off and on as a tourist attraction since 1835, but the place not only had fallen into decline, it had no records on visitationso it was difficult to project profits. The Morgans had to offer their farm as collateral for a business loan.

By the time the National Natural Landmark reopened to the public in April 1998, the lighting, stairways, and walkways had all been redone. Debts had mounted, but tourists were coming again7,000 the first year and more than 30,000 since then.

Other improvements such as a gift shop, café, and campsites now add to the caves appeal as a destination. The Morgans also have added an arena on the land above the cave, where the Organ Cave Rodeo Association puts on rodeos from May through September.

The cave itself is open year-round again, and visitors can take a variety of tours, ranging from a two-mile, 90-minute walk through main sections of the cavern, to two- to eight-hour guided wild tours into the inner recesses of the cavern for the more adventurous visitors.

Janie Morgan says most sum the experience up in one word: awesome.

The Morgans have found cave writings dating from the 1700s and 1800s, along with other evidence of use by early Native Americans. In the late 1700s, Thomas Jefferson reportedly found the skeletal remains of a three-toed sloth while exploring the cave. Its bones now reside at Monticello, Jeffersons Virginia home.

From the early 1800s through the Civil War, saltpeteran essential ingredient of gunpowderwas mined in the cave.

During the Civil War, the cave also housed 1,100 soldiers under Gen. Robert E. Lee at whats become known as Lees Underground Ammo Factory. Thirty-seven handmade wooden hoppers, used for sifting saltpeter from the dirt, still stand, ready for use. The Morgans want to protect the caves historical importance.

The biggest objective is to educate people, Janie Morgan declares. We dont want to do anything to destroy it. Our main goal is preservation.

Nine streams feed into Organ Cave. Fossils pepper its limestone ceilings. Eight varieties of batstwo rare, two endangered, according to Janiestill call it home. The pipe-organ-shaped calcite formation that gave the cave its name is off limits to tourists hands. And there are still miles to be mapped.

Theres so much more we would like to do, says Janie Morgan, but I am at peace with my purchase. We know the cave is something that can never be replaced.

Neither, apparently, can the Morgans perseverance.