Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave is probably one of the most visited and well known caves in Marion County, Tennessee. It is also one of the prettiest. The cave was first discovered by accident in the mid 1960’s when Interstate 24 was being constructed. The cave had no natural entrance and was opened during blasting. The cave is officially on the State right of way and owned by the state of Tennessee.
During the first few years after discovery the cave was given numerous names including Kangaroo Cave, Soda Straw Cave, Cedar Hill Crystal Cave and finally it became known as Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave.
The cave is located at the southern extremity of Cedar Ridge in a road cut overlooking Interstate 24 and has been mapped at just under 700 feet in length. Once you pass thru the entrance gate you are in a room that is 30 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. From hear you head east into a crawlway and cross over where the original gate was located. This crawlway heads into a passage which is 150 feet long and averages 10 feet wide and 5 feet high. It is towards the end of this passage where you start to get a taste of the beautiful formations that lie ahead. Next you enter into a large room which is 75 feet long, 150 feet wide and 25 feet high. In the northwest corner of this room the cave continues for 30 feet as a crawl then opens into another large room which is 75 feet in diameter and 15 feet high in the center. Both of these larger rooms are littered with large stalagmites, stalactites, columns, thousands of soda straw formations, and even helictites. Many of the soda straws and helictites are pure white and one can spend numerous hours inside this small cave to take in all the beauty and photographs.
(Marietta Waldron, Photo by Louis Hardin. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews)
Now for the history…
In 1967 after returning from the SERA Summer Cave Carnival in Mentone, Alabama several cavers from the Nashville Grotto, Smoky Mountain Grotto and Oak Ridge Grotto made a stop at ESSO, which was a local gas station at the South Pittsburg, Tennessee exit on Interstate 24. To their horror inside the station was a table full of long white stalactites and even photos from inside Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave. After leaving the station and visiting another nearby pit, they stopped by the cave before returning home. It was hardly noticeable that dozens of formations were missing but they knew they had to do something. They began blocking the entrance crawlway with the largest rocks that they could move and they vowed to return and gate the cave.
Over the next few months cavers continued to stop by the ESSO station to try and convince the owner to quit vandalizing the cave and selling the formations. They also began a letter writing campaign to the state of Tennessee. To their dismay neither produced any results. Unsure of how to proceed and unhappy with the results of the letter writing campaign a group of Nashville Grotto cavers decided to cement the cave shut until they could effectively put a gate on it.
In May of 1968 they made a trip to begin their cementing and while they were in the cave two men from the ESSO station came in. The ESSO employees had buckets with them to remove more formations and after a short and intense standoff between the cavers and ESSO employees the cavers continued their work on cementing the cave shut. They did however allow the men to exit the cave before they completed their work.
A few months later in the summer of 1968, Ed Jones of Cookeville, Tennessee organized another letter writing campaign. A call out for caver support and a picture of the formations for sale in the ESSO station were published in the August 1968 NSS News. NSS members began writing letters not only to the ESSO station but also to the Tennessee Department of Conservation and the Humble Oil and Refining Company headquartered in Texas. Humble Oil took a stance and was able to stop the sale of formations at the ESSO station. A few months later in September of 1968 the state of Tennessee responded to the letter writing campaign and issued the Nashville Grotto a permit to gate the cave and. control the access. No one in the Nashville Grotto at that time had ever built a cave gate so they ended up having issues getting the materials constructed. One of their newer grotto members at that time, Merritt Chaplin ended up building the gate and donating it. They spent three trips building the wall for the gate and a fourth trip to install it. Their first gate was complete on April 6, 1969. But things did not end there.
Less than one year later their gate was destroyed by a wrecker truck that pulled it out. Still determined to protect the cave, Nashville Grotto members along with the help of two Chattanooga Grotto members installed a new gate on September 27, 1970. The new gate was located six feet further back into the passage in the hopes that it would be less susceptible to vandalism from locals. To prevent a direct pull on the new gate they left the wall from the first gate and a baffle wall was built between. After the second gate was complete keys were made available to both the Nashville Grotto and Chattanooga Grotto.
In 1971, again in less than a year later the second gate was also destroyed. This time instead of using a wrecker truck the vandals used cutting torches. While it was suspected that the ESSO Station was doing the damage there was no direct evidence to have them prosecuted. A few months after the second gate was destroyed The Nashville Grotto members voted at a grotto meeting to cement the cave shut until an effective gate could be constructed. A week after their vote they made a trip down to the cave to began their work of sealing it shut. Some cavers in the area, including Chattanooga Grotto members were opposed to the cave being sealed in this manner. Not only did it keep out vandals but it also kept out responsible cavers. Over the next few years the cave had to be re sealed a number of times; 1973, 1974 and 1975. There were many Nashville Grotto members who contributed their time and materials in the effort to keep it sealed. The cement wall preserved the cave but after a few years it prompted the Chattanooga Grotto to volunteer the time and energy to build a new and more secure gate on the cave. Rick Bridges, who was the chair of the Chattanooga Grotto in 1975 made the proposal to a Nashville Grotto Executive Committee meeting and the Nashville Grotto members enthusiastically accepted their offer to build a new gate.
After some planning Chattanooga Grotto members began construction in April 1976. Ray Rankhorn, assisted by Rick Bridges and Buddy Lane drilled 2 inch diameter holes in the face of the cave entrance to cement rebar into place. In May of 1976 Buddy Lane and John Parker set, tied and welded the rebar framing into place. July 1976 Chattanooga Grotto members set the lower half forming and pouring some of the cement. In August 1976 Buddy had an eye injury in another cave and progress on the gate came to a halt for a few months while he recovered. In an effort to finish the cave gate before Christmas, Rick Buice, Mark Lassiter, Buddy Lane, Elwin Hannah, Bob Fowler and Steve Holmes finished forming and pouring seventy 90-lb bags of cement into the ten foot high form. The wall was finally finished on Christmas Eve and Buddy Lane welded the door hatch closed.
On May 5, 1977 Richard Howard and Buddy Lane installed a new door with a lock. A few months later in September 1977 a copy of the key along with instructions on how to issue it were delivered to the local Sheriff’s Office.
The construction of the gate was an expensive project. Money was contributed by the Nashville Grotto, the NSS Save The Caves Fund and was also collected at the 1976 SERA Winter Business Meeting. The Chattanooga Grotto, especially Buddy Lane donated much in the way of materials and equipment.
Over 40 years later the gate is still standing and in good shape. It continues to keep vandals out and allows responsible cavers access. Access to the cave can be made through contacting the Chattanooga Grotto or by reaching out to local cavers who have keys such as myself.
AUGUST 1968 NSS News.
Larry E. Matthews in the summer of 1967.Photo by Lonis Hardin. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Helictites growing on stalactites. Photo by G.L. Benedict III. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Photo by G.L. Benedict III. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Larry E. Matthews in what was once formerly known as Kangaroo Cave. July 15, 1968. Photo by G.L. Benedict III. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Possible shield formation. Photo by G.L. Benedict III. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Larry E. Matthews July 15, 1968. Photo by G.L. Benedict III., Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Helictites. Photo by G.L. Benedict III. Photo courtesy of Larry E. Matthews.
Photo by Kelly Smallwood
Cedar Ridge is great first time cave!! Garen & Anson Stewart on their first wild cave trip into Cedar Ridge Crystal Cave. Photo by Kelly Smallwood.