The caverns were opened to the public for a year in 1931 and
then closed because of the Depression.
boys, W.E. “Bill” Vananda and Harry Myers of Townsend played near
the entrance to the caverns and frequently ventured into them. While
students at Maryville College in 1949, they got to talking about the
feasibility of opening the cave to the public.
Associated Press Pulitzer Prize Winning columnist Hal Boyle
interviewed them about 1960, Myers recalled “We played Tom Sawyer in
the main passage as kids. We explored it for three-quarters of a
mile, sometimes wriggling on our bellies, and lighting our way with
homemade lamps – pop bottles filled with kerosene.”
And over a
cup of coffee they decided they would try to turn the cavers into a
tourist attraction. Nobody would lend them money. Both were married
and had two children. They went to Alaska and labored on
construction jobs to raise funds.
years of lonely toil – the two men had carried in hundreds of tons
of sand, cement and gravel on their backs to build steps and
passageways – they opened the cave in 1953.
the big event when the Big Room was discovered in 1954 by members of
the National Speleological Society. The group, headed by Burt H.
Denton Jr. of Nashville, was part of the Tennessee Geological Cave
Survey. Now open to the public as part of the mile-long guided tour,
the big room is more than 400 feet long, 300 feet across, and 150
feet deep. (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky has maximum ceiling heights of
only about 120 feet). The Big Room has stalagmites up to 24 feet
In 1955, the
Big Room was opened to the public at the same time electric lights
were added, eliminating the use of kerosene lanterns used to show
the scenic beauty of the underground world.
team remarked it had seen nothing as spectacular as Tuckaleechee
Caverns east of Carlsbad Cavers in New Mexico.
A few months
later, another group of spelunkers (cave explorers) discovered
another beautiful room near the Big Room but it couldn’t be opened
to the public without destroying part of the Caverns.
section opened to the public includes the 200-foot high Silver Falls
which is a double waterfall. Only the lower section may be fully
viewed but visitors can look into a lighted upper room where the
upper falls is located.
On April 9,
1958, the Caverns hosted about 65 members of the National
Speliological Society, for a dinner. John and the late Norma Wilson
of Wilson’s Hillbilly Restaurant served the meal on white
tablecloths beneath the Smokies. The spelunkers were attending a
national convention in the area.
and his wife, Golden, and Harry Myers and his wife, Nita, owned and
operated the caverns until 1982. Each couple ran the business on
alternate days from April through October, seven days a week. The
Myers sold their interest in the Caverns to the Vanandas in 1982.
of the Caverns has grown from 2,000 visitors the first year to an
average of over 50,000.
It is one of
the 8,350 known caves in Tennessee.