Reminisce: History under our feet at Ohio Caverns

WEST LIBERTY – August marks the 125th anniversary of the discovery of Ohio Caverns, the popular destination in Champaign County that has offered visitors a chance to explore over two miles of underground passageways for generations.

The unexpected discovery occurred in August 1897, when Robert Noffsinger, a 17-year-old farmhand, noticed a small sinkhole that would fill with water during heavy rains but drain quickly afterward. Investigating the cause of the sinkhole, Noffsinger began to dig, and after several feet, he ran into the limestone bedrock. Noffsinger worked his way inside a small crevice he found in the limestone and found himself in what would later be known as Ohio Caverns.

The landowner, upon hearing about this discovery, saw an opportunity for profit. A building was erected over the opening, and the area was named Mt. Tabor Cave. Visitors could explore the cavern on self-guided tours for a small fee. Lanterns were rented and visitors were required to be out by nightfall. If any lanterns were missing at the end of the day, a lost visitor was presumed to still be inside, and someone would then help the missing visitor exit the cavern.

According to a release from Ohio Caverns, as early visitors to Mt. Tabor Cave had no tour guides or restrictions and most had little experience with caves, they caused a significant amount of damage. Visitors broke off small formations for souvenirs and left carvings into the limestone to mark how far they progressed into the passageway before it became impassable. Many of the carvings are dated and show the names of the visitors, providing evidence of the furthest points explored in this early portion of the caverns’ history.

Al and Ira Smith, two brothers from Dayton, purchased the property in 1922. Local farmers helped the Smiths to remove sediment from the passageways, but due to the caverns’ narrow confines, excavating equipment was not able to be used. Over the next several years, workers cleared the passages using shovels and buckets, eventually leading to the discovery of over two additional miles of unknown passages containing large displays of white formations. In 1925, the Smiths closed off the original Mt. Tabor Cave area. They offered instead guided tours through the unveiled passages under a new name: Ohio Caverns. Ownership of Ohio Caverns has passed through multiple generations of the Smith family since 1925.

Beginning in the summer of 1996, the original Mt. Tabor Cave, unused since 1925, was reopened to the public in celebration of the caverns’ 100th anniversary. Only limited changes were made to the cavern to provide visitors, who were led on guided historical tours, with an authentic experience. Open for only three summers, the historic area was once again closed to the general public in the fall of 1998.

This year, in commemoration of the 125th anniversary, tours are being offered once again through this historic section of the caverns. Available by reservation only, tours will be offered through August. There will be one tour a day at 9:10 am and will be for only 20 people. Reservations for this limited availability tour can be made by calling 937-465-4017 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.