Nickajack Cave should be turned into a State Historic Site

Published 4:07 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022

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I once visited Marion County’s Nickajack Cave and was sad about how little the history of the place is told there. The woods near the cave have a trail and boardwalk, and the area is maintained as a wildlife refuge by TVA and the Tennessee Wildlife Refuge Agency. But, in my opinion, the cave (now permanently flooded by Nickajack Dam) is the most overlooked historic site in Tennessee.

Here are some of the reasons I maintain that Tennessee should do more to preserve and recognize this cave:

In the latter part of the 18th century, the Chickamaugan Indians settled in the mountainous area where the Tennessee River crosses the Cumberland Plateau. There the Tennessee River descended through terrifying navigational obstacles with names such as the Suck and the Boiling Pot. Nickajack Cave, near the border between Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, sat behind one of the main Chickamaugan villages.

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Starting in 1775, the Chickamaugans staged attacks on settlers in Middle Tennessee, as well as the ones migrating westward along the river such as the famous Donelson Party. In Middle Tennessee alone, more than 300 settlers were killed in these attacks (meanwhile, the number of American Indians killed in attacks by settlers is not as well documented, but it is also a high number). During and after the American Revolution, these attacks were encouraged by both the British and the Spanish— both of which supplied arms to the Chickamaugans.

On September 13, 1794, an army of about 500 men from Middle and East Tennessee and Kentucky attacked Nickajack. I’ve read books that claim that as many as 200 warriors were killed that day, but one first-person account tells us that the number was more like 70.

Even if nothing else ever happened at Nickajack, the 1794 military engagement should be enough for the place to be revered.

I sometimes wonder about what the land in front of Nickajack Cave must have looked like in the early 1800s. We do know a lot of people visited the cave at that time. According to Harper’s magazine, people rode boats down the wild stretch of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to Nickajack as a form of amusement, then explored the cave. Later, during the Civil War, Nickajack “was visited by more soldiers than any other cave” in the United States, according to a 1974 article in The Journal of Spelean History.

Both Confederate and Union armies used the cave as a saltpeter mine during the Civil War. (Saltpeter, also known as potassium nitrate, was used to make gunpowder.) As many as 100 men worked in Nickajack Cave at one time, books about the war tell us. Its loss after the battles of Chattanooga was a major blow to the Confederacy.

At least twice in the early 20th century, promoters bought Nickajack Cave in hopes of operating it as a tourist attraction. The first was Lawrence Ashley, who brought national publicity to the cave when he got lost inside it in 1927. The second was Leo Lambert, who also owned Ruby Falls.

People were drawn to visit the cave because of its lovely and unique features, such as a gigantic stalagmite called “Mr. Big.” They were assured that the cave had the longest underground lake in the world (a claim that probably wasn’t true). They were told that it was the only cave in the U.S. that wound its way under three states (a claim that probably was true).

In the mid-1960s, TVA announced it would permanently flood Nickajack Cave with the construction of Nickajack Dam just downstream from it. There were many published articles about the cave and its history, one of which drew the attention of a troubled country music star named Johnny Cash.

You can read more about Cash’s visit in his autobiography. To summarize: In the fall of 1967, Cash walked into the cave intending to kill himself, but walked out of the cave a changed man. For the rest of his life, Cash maintained that he was “born again” in Nickajack Cave.

So, just to review: Important American Indian history, early American tourist attraction, Civil War, Johnny Cash. I would argue that this is enough to maintain that Nickajack Cave and the area around it should be, at the very least, a state historic site.