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Luray Caverns Turns 120

Luray Caverns, one of America's most important cave formations, celebrates its 120th anniversary.

Measured in geologic time, It's only a microsecond since Luray Caverns was discovered in 1878. After all, it takes between 120 and 300 years to create each cubic inch of rock formation inside the cavern, and Luray has quite a lot of cubic inches. One of the five largest show caves in North America, Luray has been forming for a long time. Its largest formation took shape over 7 million years.

Like all caves, the process of shape changing involves water and minerals. Rainwater becomes acid as it comes in contact with carbon dioxide, and eats away the softer rock. Over thousands of years, the floor becomes eroded and the water table drops. Meanwhile, water brings mineral deposits down from the ceiling as it drips, or builds up in piles from the floor. These form stalactites and stalagmites, respectively.

At Luray, the water action has formed some amazing formations, all with picturesque names, like Pluto's Chasm (10 stories high), Titania's Veil, and even a pair of "fried eggs." There's also Dream Lake, whose paltry 20 inches of water are so clear and still that the reflections of rock formations appear hundreds of feet deep.

Luray has had a colorful past. Andrew Campbell and Benton Stebbins, who were actively looking for a show cave, discovered the cave and purchased the property for $13 an acre at a bankruptcy sale. They opened to the public in August 1878, and the cave has been open every day since then. But in 1881, the previous owner successfully sued to regain the property, using the argument that the entrepreneurs hadn't disclosed its value. Later, it was purchased by the Shenandoah Valley Railroad, which sold it to Colonel T.C. Northcott in 1905, for U.S. $60,000. It has been in the Northcott family ever since.

Northcott created the first air conditioned house in America, by drilling a shaft into the cavern from the house above it. The limestone provided natural filtration, and the cool cave air provided welcome respite from those hot, sticky Virginia summers. Years later, in 1954, inventor Leland Sprinkle received permission to construct the world's largest pipe organ, using the resonance of the rock formations to play notes. It is 3-1/2 acres and is programmed to play 20 different compositions (including, of course, Oh, Shenandoah). It can also be played manually.

Outside the cave and included in the admission price is a fine collection of antique cars and carriages, especially strong in the rare 1915 and earlier models that chronicle the dawn of the automotive age, as well as sport and luxury cars from the 20s and 30s--among them Rudolph Valentino's Rolls Royce.

Along with Jefferson's home in Monticello, Shenandoah National Park, and the tri-state historic community of Harper's Ferry, Luray is one of the premier attractions of Virginia's Blue Ridge/Shenandoah region.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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