Chattanooga, TN Part IV: Ruby Falls
Hixson, TN - Events of Friday, October 12 to Sunday, October 14, 2012
We had one more thing to do on Lookout Mountain, but it wasn't outside. Therefore, the weather didn't matter, so we scheduled it for Friday during the clouds and rain.
Ruby Falls is another roadside attraction that dates back to the 1920s. Ruby Falls is a 145-foot tall waterfall that is in a cavern over 1,100 feet underground.
The story of Ruby Falls begins with Lookout Mountain Cave, which was known to Native Americans, cave explorers, outlaws and Civil War soldiers. The cave had an entrance at the foot of Lookout Mountain on the banks of the Tennessee River.
In the early 1900s, a railroad was built along the banks of the river. The construction of a tunnel through part of the mountain intersected with the cave's natural entrance, so the railroad sealed off the entrance to the cave.
Leo Lambert, who had explored the cave as a youth, longed to reopen the cave to the public. Lambert devised a plan to drill an elevator shaft from another location on the mountain to intersect with Lookout Mountain Cave and access it from above. He rounded up a group of investors and began drilling in the fall of 1928.
In December, a worker detected a void in the rock below and felt a gush of air. The void was at the 260-foot level, which was still 160 feet above the level where Lookout Mountain Cave was located.
When the workers investigated, they found the void was 18 inches high and about 5 feet wide. Lambert and several others climbed down the shaft to explore the new opening. They ended up crawling on their bellies for 7 hours before they came to a place where they could stand. The crew discovered many unusual formations as they explored deeper and deeper into the cave until they eventually reached a 145-foot high waterfall. The crew rushed back to the surface to share their news about the magnificent falls they had discovered. They were underground for a total of 17 hours in their initial exploration of the newly discovered cave.
Lambert took his wife, Ruby, with him on his next trip into the cave. He named the falls in her honor.
Lambert decided to develop both Lookout Mountain Cave and the newly-discovered Ruby Falls Cave and offer tours of both caves. Those tours took up to 4 hours back in the day. However, Ruby Falls Cave proved to be so much more popular than Lookout Mountain Cave that tours of Lookout Mountain Cave were discontinued in 1935. Today's tour of Ruby Falls Cave takes about an hour and a half.
The tour starts with an elevator ride down 260 feet into the earth. It is interesting to note that if the elevator shaft had been drilled 6 feet from where it actually was drilled, it would have completely missed both caves. The initial part of the tour passes through the area where Lambert and his crew had to crawl on their bellies. The rock has been excavated so visitors can now walk upright, but the ceiling is still fairly low so you need to watch your head, especially if you're tall. Leo was only about 5 feet 4 inches, so he apparently thought the passage was quite adequate.
The photo below shows a typical passage through the first part of the cave. The ceiling is original, and the white arrows indicate the depth of the original opening. The walkway below the arrows has been excavated. Limestone from the excavation was used to build the entrance building shown above.
Within a short time, we came to our first formation. It is a stalagmite that has been named the Cactus.
Ruby Falls Cave doesn't have any large rooms except for the room where the falls is located, and that room isn't all that huge. Instead, there are tall, narrow passages. Many of the ceilings have small, hollow stalactites called soda straws.
A little farther along, we came to a circular collection of soda straws named the Chandelier. Below it is a stalagmite called the Totem Pole.
Groundwater seeps through the earth picking up minerals, and it flows down the insides of the soda straws depositing the minerals as it goes. As the soda straws close off, they begin to grow into larger stalactites. The next photo shows several stalactites and flowstones. Flowstones are where the mineral deposits are beginning to form sheets.
Tours going into and out of the cave use the same passages. Tours coming out have the right of way, so those going in must stand to the side to allow outbound tours to pass. We took advantage of one of the waiting times for a photo.
We passed numerous formations on our way to the falls.
Finally, we arrived at the falls. Except for a few dim lights near the floor so you can see where you are going, the room where the falls is located is dark as each tour group enters. Once everyone is in, the lights come on and music starts.
Although Ruby Falls is 1,100 feet underground, you are actually standing 10 feet higher when you're at the falls than you were when you got off the elevator. That's because as you travel the cave passages back into the mountain toward the falls, the mountain above gets taller.
On our way back to the elevator we passed several different formations that were easier to see on the way out than they were on the way in. One area had a reflecting pool (at the bottom right of the next photo). Although the pool was only a few inches deep, it looked liked it went way down.
After the tour, the elevator lets visitors off at the upper level of the entrance building where you can climb another flight of stairs to the observation deck. Ruby Falls is at a lower elevation on Lookout Mountain than either Point Park or Rock City, but the view would still have been beautiful had the weather been better.
We relaxed around the motor home on Saturday and watched the campground empty out on Sunday. On Monday, we hit the road ourselves and continued on our way south.