Discovery at Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave

On a cold Friday in March 1972, John Wallace checked his four-seat plane at Atlanta’s Charlie Brown Airport for a flight to Tennessee. The plan was for John’s wife, Youlanda, and their children Paul and Erika, along with Art Smith and Jack Pace, to drive to Cumberland Mountain State Park in Crossville, Tennessee and rent a cabin for the weekend. My wife Kathy, our six-year-old daughter, Deanna, and I would fly with John to Crossville Memorial Airport in Crossville and spend a day caving the next day.

We would alternate driving and flying to have transportation from the airport to the caves we visited in the southeast. Half the group would fly and the other half would drive. This ride was quite nice along the interstate and then we followed the state road to Crossville. It was after dark when we arrived and the airport lights weren’t on. The airport is on top of a mountain and we were a little nervous to find a place to land. John’s wife was there, but was unable to reach anyone at the airport. John finally managed to radio someone and they turned on the lights.

It was a large cabin in the park and we settled in for a good night’s rest before the next day’s trip. We planned to visit Devils Sink Hole with the family and then the four of us would explore Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave on the other side of the mountain. Kathy and Deanna had a lovely day walking through the park while caving.

A few miles southeast of Crossville is Grassy Cove, a depression between two mountains that by all rights should be a large natural lake. Rainwater that falls into the cove runs north into a cave, then emerges at Devils Sink Hole, south of the cove and over the mountain. This long mountain contains many caves and a main stream that flows completely under it. Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave is well known for being a dusty cave and dust masks are helpful in preventing histoplasmosis, a common lung disease in dusty caves and chicken coops. I came down with a slight case of this later and it very well could have been from this cave. The doctor wanted to know if he had been in a chicken coop.

We entered the cave and debated exploring the dry passages to the west or venturing down the waterfall at the eastern end of the cave. It was reported that there were more caves under the waterfall. However, ropes would be needed and we were not prepared for that. The waterfall room sounded too good to pass up, so we opted to go down the chasm and the waterfall.

The Abyss is a short drop that can be climbed by opening a chimney to a narrow part of the drop. However, we opted to use the rope for the fall. We continue to the waterfall room and look for an easy track to continue. John was looking behind a large rock on the north side of the passage when he noticed air blowing off the rocks. We all got excited and started helping out with the easy digging.

In less than an hour we had a small hole that seemed to open down. I was chosen to give it a try, not sure why I was the first, but I was grateful. I stepped in front of the hole and took off my helmet to pass. At the bottom was a low crawl heading northeast for about 50 feet and then a ledge with a small drop of about 5 feet into a large room that sloped downward. I studied the ground and couldn’t make out any trace. I sat there to encourage the others to come down. We had found something great.

I felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon when I took that first step downstairs and left that first footprint where no one had stepped before. The mud had a black coating on top and when I lifted my foot it left a very light orange imprint about 1 inch deep. It felt strange walking into that huge room and then looking back at the lonely set of footprints that would soon become a well-trodden path.

We explored the thousand foot sixty foot wide, thirty foot high passage for the remainder of the day, finding formations along the west wall and glass plaster flowers covering the floor as the ceiling got lower near end. We crawled through a breakdown to a much smaller room at the end and couldn’t figure out how to continue.

We were all very excited about our new find and plan to re-map this new section the following month. We returned on Saturday April 22, 1972 with the additional help of my wife’s cousin, Bill Meier, and mapped the March 18 discovery. He was working for Eastman Kodak Co. at the time and had access to the latest home theater cameras. I was testing a new model in very low light to make movies in the cave. We used a Coleman flashlight as the light source and the shutter speed was set slow to capture as much light as possible. These short movies can be viewed on my caving website.

When Jack Pace moved to Nashville, he told the caving group there about the discovery. Three years later, in 1975, a group of Nashville cavers pushed the end of the Georgia Room and discovered the Nashville Extension, a stream passage that extended the cave far below the mountain. This is the reason why we go to the caves, to see what is there.

At the end of 2013, the largest room in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave has no name. As I was the first person to set foot there, I am pleased to name the passage that averages thirty feet high by twenty feet wide and a thousand feet long, the “Georgia Hall.”

Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave now ranks 11th in the state of Tennessee for being the longest cave. I would like to think that we make it a bit easier for future cavers to discover the kilometers of cave that followed this great cave. Great discoveries were made in the following years, and then in the late 1970s, the Smoky Mountain Grotto sealed off our little hole with a concrete slab marked “SMG.”

1 Blue Spring Cave 33 miles

2 Cumberland Caverns 27 miles

3 Xanadu Cave System 23 miles

4 Cave of Rumbling Falls 15 miles

5 Nunley Mountain Cave System 15 miles

6 Big Bone Cave 15 miles

7 Snail Cave System 9 miles

8 Rice Cave 9 miles

9 Cuyler Cave 8 miles

10 Dunbar Cave 8 miles

11 Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave 8 miles

12 Wolf River 7 miles

13 Haws Spring Cave 7 miles

14 Zarathustra 7 miles

15 Gulf Cave Camps 6 miles

This was the first major discovery I ever participated in and I have been more excited than ever about caving and the challenge of not only exploring but also documenting caves with maps, pictures, movies and articles.