Spelunkers share tales of underground labyrinth
By: Jo Ellis
First of three stories
CARTHAGE, MO – Is there a labyrinth of caves under downtown Carthage? Do Carthaginians walk daily over a rushing underground river?
And does a “large, beautiful lake, clear as crystal and sweet to the taste” lap quietly at a subterranean shore beneath bustling city streets?
The answer to all these questions is, in all probability, “yes.” Missouri, after all, boasts the largest numbers of caves in the United States – 4,029 at last count. It isn’t likely that Carthage failed to get its share.
There’s more than just guesswork to go on. A party explored the caves in 1872, and an eye witness account was published in a Carthage newspaper.
Since then, very little information has been added and few explorations have been attempted, although speculation and interest in the caves continues to run high.
“I am the only person living, so far as I know, to have been in it,” says F.A. Asendorf. Asendorf lives at 1010 Garrison Ave., just a short distance from the opening entered by the Bigsell party in 1872.
Asendorf moved there in 1907 as a young boy, and the cave was known to all the boys in the neighborhood. “It was silted up even in those days – around 1909 to 1910,” Asendorf says.
The fact didn’t deter a group of curious and daring boys. Asendorf says a “10th Street Cave Gang” was formed.
The club required initiates to take an identifiable object, descend alone though “the Stygian darkness” of the cave to the farthest point possible, and leave the token.
After a hurried scramble up the 25-foot, fieldstone lined opening pit, the initiate returned to the warmth of the sunshine and friends.
“Then all would troop down to see if the test had been passed. The greatest treat that could be offered a visitor was to take him into the cave,” Asendorf recalls.
From the descending pit, the passageway “went almost due north.” Even small kids had to crawl about 40 to 50 feet before the passage opened, providing standing room. Asendorf says the passage he explored was possibly 150 feet long.
The city, however, found it expedient to use the cave opening as a storm-sewer outlet.
“For 60 years, all the rainwater from Macon to Chestnut on the west side of Main Street, the east side of Garrison, and all of Lyon and Maple streets was drained into this cave,” Asendorf says.
“None of these streets were paved, and sand, silt and leaves were washed into it indiscriminately. After a heavy rain, an outboard motorboat could be run up and down the streets at 10th and Garrison, and the basements in that area were flooded. But given sufficient time, the water still drained away.”
By 1933, the cave was stopped up to the entrance. A storm sewer was built across Garrison Avenue to carry the water, and the entrance was sealed with a concrete plug.
In 1962, an attempt was made to re-enter the cave.
William Harrington and Vernie Ayres were among a group of amateur spelunkers, dubbed the “Spring River Rats,” who worked in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce and the Carthage Civil Defense Agency to reopen the cave with the idea of using it as a community shelter.
They found the entrance full of chat and debris. Digging down about 25 feet, they stuck several springs and removed five truckloads of dirt, sand and gravel.
“We dug until we reached a concrete plug in the bottom of it,” Ayres says, “but the thing kind of fizzled out because of lack of equipment and money.”
A metal grate was placed over the opening to keep children out. “Just a few rains filled it with debris again,” Harrington says. The explorers did see a passageway “going north toward Knell’s (funeral home). You could see about six inches between the roof and the dirt a long way back.”
Ayres says that many years ago on foggy mornings, he could distinguish a trail of frost in a diagonal line across Central Park – a phenomenon he believes indicates the existence an underground passageway. When the snow blanketed the park, the trail again became apparent as the warmer air underground melted the snow.
Next: Tales that excite spelunkers.