The history of Fantastic Caverns
Photo courtesy of FantasticCaverns.com
A Jeep led tram takes tourists through the cave as it is now. Before it became a tourist attraction, it served several different purposes, including a speak easy and a concert hall.
In late December 1866, John Knox was hunting on his property about seven miles northwest of Springfield when his dog chased a rabbit into a hole and didn’t come back. Knox dug out the hole and discovered the dog trapped on a ledge inside a large cavern. After exploring the cave and realizing its extent and beauty, he opened it to the public. The first exploratory party journeyed from Springfield on February 14, 1867, and, after exploring the cave, one of the group predicted that it would soon rival Mammoth Cave of Kentucky as a resort.
Knox set the price of admission to his cave at fifty cents, but women could get in free. Taking advantage of the free admission, twelve adventurous ladies from the Springfield Women’s Athletic Club visited the cave on February 27. Equipped with ropes and ladders, they inched their way through the damp, slippery passages, lighted only by the flickering lamps they carried. Popular legend, still promoted by Fantastic Caverns, says that these women comprised the very first exploratory party, but the evidence does not support this claim.
Among the people accompanying the twelve ladies was the loyalist editor of the Springfield Tri-Weekly Patriot, who tried to dub the cavern Lincoln Cave after the deceased president, but it was commonly known as Knox Cave after its owner. The editor’s enthusiasm for the new discovery was dampened only by the moisture inside the cave, which he said would “ever be a disagreeable feature.”
Knox Cave remained a minor attraction until 1887, when it was purchased by a group of investors led by A. H. Rogers, who renamed the place Percy Cave after his deceased son. Rogers installed electric lights in the cave, made other improvements, and began heavily promoting it as resort, but he left for the booming mine fields around Joplin before fully developing the cave.