Ask Hamilton – Nickajack Cave

Dear Hamilton,

Spelunking is a thriving hobby here in the Scenic City. There are so many iconic caverns to explore! I keep hearing about Nickajack Cave, but I recently found out it’s almost entirely underwater and off-limits to the public. If visitors aren’t allowed in, what makes this site so special?
Caving to Curiosity

Nickajack Cave today

Nickajack Cave today

Dear Caving to Curiosity,

While it may not look like it, Nickajack Cave wasn’t always underwater! Centuries ago, it was part of Chickamauga Cherokee land and served as a refuge for Native American groups in the region. The cave and its neighboring lake are named after the Cherokee town of Nickajack, which was destroyed in 1794 by the Nickajack Expedition.
Beginning in 1800, the cave became known for its abundant supply of saltpeter, a substance used to make gunpowder. Armies took advantage of this resource during the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. Because of its longtime use as a saltpeter mine, Nickajack Cave became commonly known as Saltpeter Cave in the following decades.
In the late 19th century, Nickajack Cave opened commercially and became a thriving recreational site, its cool interior providing a welcome escape from the summer heat. Locals even installed a dance floor inside! Guides offered tours through the cave, while curious spelunkers braved navigating its mazelike tunnels for themselves.

Explorers pose inside the cave, 1927

Explorers pose inside the cave, 1927

One of these local explorers, geologist Lawrence S. Ashley, caused quite a stir in 1927 when he disappeared within the cave for nearly a week before emerging to tell a wild survival story. These theatrics were speculated to be a publicity stunt to draw attention to Nickajack Cave. If so, it certainly worked – his story made it to The New York Times!
During its time as a commercial site, the cave was operated by several notable figures in Chattanooga’s history. Robert Cravens, best known for living in Civil War landmark Cravens House on Lookout Mountain, owned Nickajack Cave during the mid-1800s. Nearly a century later, it was acquired by Leo Lambert, who developed one of Chattanooga’s most popular tourist attractions to this day, Ruby Falls. After decades of use, Nickajack Cave closed as a commercial operation in the late 1940s.
Believe it or not, one of Nickajack Cave’s last visitors in the months before it flooded was famous singer Johnny Cash. His 1967 pilgrimage to the cave during a turbulent time in his life was a pivotal moment that inspired his musical endeavors moving forward. Contemporary country artist Gary Allan even wrote a song about Cash’s experience, titled “Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash’s Redemption).”
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s completion of Nickajack Dam that same year partially flooded the cave with up to 30 feet of water, putting an end to further exploration. Nowadays, the cave receives visitors that pay no mind to its water-filled interior. A colony of nearly 100,000 gray bats arrives every spring to make use of the cave’s ceiling as a maternity roost, where pregnant females give birth and raise their pups. You can thank these bats for keeping the area’s bug population under control – the Nickajack Cave colony alone can consume up to 274,000 pounds of insects each year!
Because this species of bat is endangered, TVA took action to protect the colony that frequents Nickajack Cave from human interference. In 1981, TVA fenced off the cave’s entrance, and in 1992, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency designated Nickajack Cave as Tennessee’s first non-game wildlife refuge. The two organizations partner to continue protecting these animals and ensure the cave remains an undisturbed haven for brooding bats.

Though the cave itself is closed to the public, you can sneak a peek at its nocturnal residents when the time is right. During the summer months, tens of thousands of bats emerge from the cave at sunset for their nightly feeding. Check out the bats from a nearby viewing platform, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, grab a kayak or paddleboard to get front-row seats to the evening feeding spectacle by paddling near the cave’s entrance.
So, while you can’t go spelunking in this historic cave, you can still enjoy viewing its batty residents and scenic surroundings!

Hope this helps!
Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

Gray bat

Gray bat

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