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Lewis and Clark Caverns

Lewis and Clark Caverns

Where did the Caverns come from?

Lewis and Clark Caverns began as an ancient sea. Tiny animals called crinoids used to live in the warm, shallow waters. The seawater contained a mineral called calcite, which was eaten by the crinoids The calcitite strengthened their shells.

After several million years, the shells of crinoids piled up on the sea floor. Time and pressure caused them to petrify into limestone. After a great many more years, a thick layer of shale and sandstone piled up on top of the limestone. Then eighty million years ago, shifting tectonic plates caused great earthquakes. These earthquakes caused the the mountains to rise up thousands of feet, pulling the limestone up along with them.

Since calcite dissolves in water, it makes sense that limestone, which is also made from calcite, is easily eroded by water when given enough time. Water from the Jefferson River caused deep channels to erode into the limestone. Very slowly, the channels became the rooms and passages of the cavern system. Although the river has now changed its course and no longer flows into the caves, ground water still seeps through the walls. This ground water is slightly acidic, and it causes the calcite to dissolve. After the water has finished its journey through tiny cracks in the walls or ceiling, it deposits the calcite back onto the wall.

Layers and layers of calcite deposits build up from the water drops, leaving behind interesting formations. Calcite deposits, which hang from the ceiling, are called stalactites. When similar formations are found along the cave floor, they are called stalagmites. One neat way to remember which one is which is by remembering that stalac"tites" hold tight to the ceiling and that stalag"mites" might if they could. There are many types of calcite formations and colors of the formations vary depending on which other minerals are found in the ground water.

When did people find the caves?

Native Americans have known about the caverns for hundreds of years, and they are mentioned in Indian stories. Although the caverns are now named for Lewis and Clark, they never visited them, nor is it likely that they knew of them.

Lewis and Clark came into the area in 1805, during their famous mapping expedition. They camped along Antelope Creek on July 31st. Antelope Creek is a tributary of the Jefferson River and it is a few miles from Lewis and Clark Caverns.

Charles Brooke and Mexican John, both from Whitehall, discovered the cave entrance in 1882. They had heard of the great caves from local Indian legend and set out to look for them. They did not tell many people about their discovery.

In 1892, two hunters discovered the cave entrance when they noticed a plume of steam coming out of the cave. These men were Tom Williams and Burt Pannell. Tom Williams wanted to explore the caverns and six years later, he finally did. Using ropes to rappel and candles for lighting, they lowered themselves down into "Discovery Hole," a deep cavity. People who explore caves are called spelunkers.

Many years later, Tom Williams talked to Dan Morrison, a local investor, about developing the cavern for tours. They were successful in developing and promoting their tourist business, but in 1900, the railroad laid claim to the land. Morrison took them to court, but the railroad won. In 1908, the railroad turned the land over to the federal government and President Theodore Roosevelt made it a National Monument in May of 1911. It was closed to the public for the next thirty years because congress did not set aside any money to maintain it. The people of Montana wanted the caverns to be opened to the public, and they asked the governor to help.

In 1935, Montana Governor Frank Cooney asked the federal government to make the caverns a state park. In 1937, Congress finally signed the papers that made Lewis and Clark Caverns a state park. This was Montana's first state park. There was still a problem though; because that was the era of The Great Depression, the state did not have enough money to develop or maintain the park. The Depression was tough for the whole country; no one had much money. To help create jobs, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with a set of programs called the New Deal. One of the things the New Deal did was to create the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC worked on projects to improve roads, parks and other important projects. About 200 men from the CCC worked to improve Lewis and Clark Caverns between 1935 and 1941. One can still see steps the men carved in the stone floor of the caves.

In 1940, electric lighting was installed in the caverns. The park opened to the public in 1941. Today, the Lewis and Clark Caverns is a great place to go hiking, camping, spelunking, and picnicking. There is abundant wildlife and wildflowers in the vicinity. The facility has a visitor's center, a gift shop, public restroom facilities, and a snack bar.

What about bats?

The western big-eared bat is perhaps the most interesting inhabitant of the caverns. Inside Lewis and Clark Caverns, there is a colony of female Western Big-eared bats. Most bats have only one baby each year. The Western Big-eared bat has a gestation period of 50 to 105 days. Females colonize in the cave to give birth and nurture their young. Adult male big-eared bats do not live in the colonies with the females; scientists think they inhabit other nearby caves.

There used to be thousands of bats in Lewis and Clark Caverns, but now there are only about one hundred. Although the Western Big-eared bat is not on the endangered species list, they are on a caution list and are species of concern.

Western big-eared bats have bodies that are three inches long, and their ears add another inch to their length. They have big ears because they use "echolocation." They produce high-pitched sounds that human ears cannot hear, about 70 megahertz. These sounds echo off of cave walls and other objects. Bats can use echolocation to determine if an object is moving. Bats are not blind, but since they like to be awake at night, they need echolocation to help them catch their food.

These marvelous creatures are beneficial in a number of ways. A single bat will eat thousands of bugs every night and their droppings support a whole ecosystem within the cave. Bacteria and fungi grow from the droppings, called guano, and support springtails and mites, which are fed on by harvestman spiders.

How to Find It!

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park is located 19 miles west of Three Forks on Montana Highway 2 or 17 miles east of Whitehall on Montana Highway 2.

For more information and maps visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks listing for Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park.

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