Monday, November 18

Much Tennessee history happened at Nickajack Cave

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Some places are recognized for the important and interesting events that occurred there. Then there is Nickajack Cave in Marion County near the Tennessee-Georgia border. Flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority and largely overlooked by the historical community, it may be the most forgotten historical site in the state.

Like just about every other cave, there are local legends about murders, moonshining and buried treasure in Nickajack. But the cave and the area immediately around it have also made national history several times.

The Chickamaugans

Today, every fourth-grader in Tennessee is required to learn that a warlike branch of the Cherokee nation called the Chickamaugans emerged in the late 18th century. Under the leadership of Dragging Canoe, the Chickamaugans settled in the mountainous area where the Tennessee River crosses the Cumberland Plateau. There the Tennessee River descended through terrifying navigational obstacles with names such as the Suck and the Boiling Pot. We can only imagine what these legendary areas must have looked like because they are now beneath the waters of a manmade lake.

Today, Nickajack Cave is flooded by a Tennessee Valley Authority lake. Photograph by Bill Carey.

Today, Nickajack Cave is flooded by a Tennessee Valley Authority lake. Photograph by Bill Carey.

Nickajack Cave was just downstream from these navigational obstacles. Nickajack, one of the principal towns of the Chickamaugans, was located between the cave and the river.

Starting in 1775, the Chickamaugans staged attacks on settlers in Middle and East Tennessee as well as those such as the famous Donelson Party migrating westward along the river. In Middle Tennessee alone, more than 400 settlers were killed in these attacks. During and after the American Revolution, these attacks were encouraged by both the British and the Spanish — both of which were supplying arms to the Chickamaugans.

“Saltpeter Works in the Cave at Shellmound, Tenn. (Nickajack Cave)” by J.T.E. Hillen

“Saltpeter Works in the Cave at Shellmound, Tenn. (Nickajack Cave)” by J.T.E. Hillen

In September 1794, an army of about 500 men from Middle and East Tennessee and Kentucky attacked Nickajack. The Chickamaugans believed their village was hidden and could never be found. They were completely surprised by the assault.

Many of the soldiers who attacked Nickajack had friends and family members who had been killed by the Chickamaugans. One of the scouts on the expedition was Joseph Brown, who, as a boy, had seen his father and several of his brothers murdered by Chickamaugans. The soldiers were out for revenge, and they showed little mercy. Soldier James Collier remembered it this way:

“We dashed through the cornfields to the upper end of the town. The Indians had deserted their cabins and fled to the river. Several Indians were killed in the river. One was laying on his face in a floating canoe, reaching his hands over each side and paddling. Several shot at him — I fired two or three times — and at length Colonel Whitley came up and said, ‘Let me have a crack at him.’ I saw the blood spurt out of the Indian’s shoulder, and he made no more efforts.

“At the lower end of the town, where Montgomery’s party was, the water was red with blood.”

Books I have read books claim that as many as 200 warriors were killed that day, but one first-person account tells us the number was more like 50. Nevertheless, it was enough to force the Chickamaugans to agree to peace.

Even if nothing else ever happened at Nickajack, the 1794 military engagement should be enough for the place to be revered. In 1955, a journalist named Zella Armstrong wrote that Nickajack and the area around it should be a state historical park because “it was not until their destruction that Tennessee could be peaceably settled.”

Tourist attraction and saltpeter mine

I sometimes wonder about what the land in front of Nickajack Cave must have looked like after Indian removal in 1838. It is amazing to contemplate the idea that there were remnants of an active Chickamaugan village at Nickajack. But today we know nothing about what it actually consisted of or where the buildings were.

Matthew Rhea’s 1832 Tennessee map includes handwritten notes indicating the locations of obstacles along the Tennessee River, including the Suck and the Boiling Pot. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

Matthew Rhea’s 1832 Tennessee map includes handwritten notes indicating the locations of obstacles along the Tennessee River, including the Suck and the Boiling Pot. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

We do know that a lot of people visited Nickajack Cave. I found an article in Harper’s Magazine indicating that as early as the 1850s, people would ride boats down the treacherous stretch of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to Nickajack as a form of amusement, then explore the cave. Later, during the Civil War, Nickajack Cave “was visited by more soldiers than any other cave” in the United States, according to a 1974 article in The Journal of Spelean History.

One of the Union soldiers who visited the cave during the war said it was about 15 miles long and had a large stream running through it. “Some distance, after crossing the river, you come to a small chamber, which is very pretty,” David Lathrop from Illinois wrote. “The ceiling is ornamented with stalactites, resembling icicles, and the walls are perpendicular and smooth. The corners and edges of the ceiling are as though they had been ornamented by some master workman.”

Both Confederate and Union armies used the cave as a saltpeter mine during the Civil War. (Saltpeter, also known as potassium nitrate, was used to make gunpowder.) As many as 100 men worked in Nickajack Cave at one time, books about the war tell us. Its loss after the battles of Chattanooga was a major blow to the Confederacy.

Johnny Cash

At least twice in the early 20th century, promoters bought Nickajack Cave in an attempt to make money operating it as a tourist attraction. The first was Lawrence Ashley, who brought national publicity to the cave when he got lost inside it in 1927. The second was Leo Lambert, who also owned Ruby Falls near Chattanooga.

People were drawn to visit the cave because of its lovely and unique features such as a gigantic stalagmite called “Mr. Big.” They were assured that the cave had the longest underground lake in the world (a claim that probably wasn’t true). They were told it was the only cave in America that wound its way under three states (a claim that probably was true).

James Lewis in the chart room in Nickajack Cave where Lawrence S. Ashley had studied and charted the cave before beginning his exploration. Ashley became lost in the cave in 1927. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

James Lewis in the chart room in Nickajack Cave where Lawrence S. Ashley had studied and charted the cave before beginning his exploration. Ashley became lost in the cave in 1927. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

In the mid-1960s, TVA announced it would permanently flood Nickajack Cave with the construction of Nickajack Dam just downstream from it. There were many published articles about the cave and its history, one of which drew the attention of a troubled country music star named Johnny Cash.

You can read more about Cash’s visit in his autobiography or in the book “Johnny Cash Walked the Line” by Christopher Stratton. To summarize: In the fall of 1967, Cash walked into the cave intending to kill himself but walked out of the cave a changed man. “He lay in the darkness for hours feeling sorry for himself — for the lives he had ruined and the body he’d abused,” Stratton wrote. “But down in those unfathomable depths, everything changed. His mind became clear, and he started focusing on God.”

For the rest of his life, Cash maintained that he was born again in Nickajack Cave.

The foolish diver

On Dec. 15, 1967, TVA closed the gates of the new dam, permanently flooding Nickajack Cave and the land in front of it. There was some talk about building a levee to protect the cave, but TVA didn’t do that sort of thing very often, especially for an unpopulated area. There was also talk of an extensive archaeological dig in front of the cave, but I’m sad to report that it was not done.

A few years after Nickajack was flooded, TVA made the cave off limits to protect the gray bats that live inside it. “No Trespassing” signs were posted in the front of the cave, and fences were installed to keep people out. But in August 1992, two divers ignored the warnings and entered the cave. They intended to explore it underwater, believing that they could reach large, unflooded parts of the cave deep inside. However, one of them, David Gant, eventually surfaced in a small air pocket deep in the cave without enough oxygen in his tank to get out.

Gant spent 14 hours alone deep in Nickajack Cave, convinced he was going to die. He would have died, in fact, had TVA not lowered the level of the lake to assist in his rescue. So certain was he of his pending death that Gant reportedly asked his two rescuers if they were angels. “We’ve been called a lot of things,” one of them said, “but not angels.”

At Nickajack, the Chickamaugans were annihilated, Union and Confederate soldiers mined saltpeter, generations came to vacation and Johnny Cash became a Christian. However, few people venture down Tennessee Route 156 to see the flooded mouth of the cave. You can go see it if you like, and you can venture close to the entrance by walking a short trail at the Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge. If you do visit the site, I hope you find less litter there than I did. I also hope state and local officials can do more to tell the story of the cave to people who visit.

Thanks to cave historian Jim Whidby, “Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements” editor Paul Clements and “Caves of Chattanooga” author Larry E. Matthews.

Nickajack Cave was also known as Saltpeter Cave for the ingredient Union and Confederate armies mined there to manufacture gunpowder. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

Nickajack Cave was also known as Saltpeter Cave for the ingredient Union and Confederate armies mined there to manufacture gunpowder. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives

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About Author

Bill Carey

Researcher and writer Bill Carey co-founded Tennessee History for Kids in November 2004. He worked as a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s, and he is the author of six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History; Chancellors, Commodores and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University; and Leave No One Behind: Hurricane Katrina and the Rescue of Tulane Hospital. He is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, who spent five years as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987.

21 Comments

    • douglas carson on

      A good copy of Harper’s Weekly from February 6th, 1864 is available as a reprint. It has the woodcut that is in the last picture. About $6 for a reprint, and $26 for the original.

  1. Roland Cross on

    My mother was raised in the 1920s-30s in coal city holler next to the Nick
    ajack cave…….

  2. Karla Walters on

    I believe some me of the lore about this cave was the subject of the novels w ritten for young people by Joseph Altsheler, a native of Kentucky who died n 1919.

  3. I remember Dad taking us to see it before it was flooded. I never knew the story about Johnny Cash.

  4. Family history holds that Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego Inman, three brothers who had immigrated from Ireland after their father remarried a woman that they despised, traveled with Daniel Boone into Eastern Tennessee and were ranging southwest with a large party when they escaped the cold and snowy winter by sleeping near the mouth of Nickajack cave. Late at night Indians attacked, and several members of the party were killed, including Meshach. Shadrack was injured in the side by a spear, which he passed to his children as a family heirloom, and Abednego’s face was marred by a tomahawk; he survived by hiding in a hollow tree for nine days without food before he was rescued.

    Like all hand-me-down stories, I take this one with a grain of salt, but think about it anytime Nickajack cave is mentioned.

  5. Went there with dad when I was young for picnics and fishing.still remember the steps on the left side before the entrance where we sat to eat.been inside maybe half a mile.it is absolutely beautiful.cant believe TVA was allowed to flood such a Historical place.Money Money Money always trumps Right.

  6. Except the lie about the “Chickamaugans” being a branch of the Cherokee.

    Even Mooney in the History of the Cherokee admits it was already the home of a warlike bandetti like people who raided everyone coming down the Tennessee River.

    Dragging Canoe didn’t “form” a new tribe, rather he integrated with an existing one and brought it to greater notoriety.

    History is written by the conquering.

  7. Billy Kirkpatrick on

    The cave was open all the way to Trenton GA. at one time. Closed by exploring Boy Scott.grope when they hit a gas pocket.never reopen.

    • Although the Nickajack Cave does extend for several miles of passage, and under the corner for GA, TN, AL, it did not go to Trenton.
      Howard’s Waterfall is the cave that was the site of the gasoline fume explosion that the Boy Scouts suffered. April 16th, 1966. It is in a different geological layer than this cave. A gas station farther up the mountain had a leaking underground tank, and the carbide lights of the Scouts set off the explosion. Two rescuers and a Scout leader were overcome by carbon monoxide gas and perished, but the Scouts all survived. Howard’s Waterfall cave is owned bin the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, and is open to the public with permission.

  8. BOBBY THOMPSON on

    I have been in Nickajack many times. The first time in 1953 there was remnant of a dam in front. This brought the water level up for boat tours around 1920’s. The dam was gone making the water level very low. You could walk across the shallow places between very deep blue water. You could travel almost straight South a few miles to second very large room with breakdown. We found no way out. I was told the breakdown was caused by a farmer above. He was trying to go deeper by dropping dynamite in his well. We found very few side passages. At the entrance the large room was maybe 200 ft wide and long with the 15 ft stalagmit with a fast water drip echoing in the cave. The breakdown was caused by the US Army blowing up the saltpeter works. I have crawled under this breakdown. There are barrel stays and wood all under there. There is more, but I have ran out room. I had fun in that cave. I knew it well.

  9. James martin on

    My ancestors founded New Hope,TN IN THE 1830’s.Choate family they were granted 150 acrea.the cemetery in New Hope has rocks for Graves ..two of their sons fought for the confederation. One son is buried in New Hope near the railroad crossing ,the other is buried in Alabama near the Tn boarder across from the large cave in a lititle cemetery. .

  10. The Article lacks Authenticity….in regard to the Chickamauga. Though some of the information comes from “historical” record.
    In regard to being “Cherokee”, there may have been “Cherokee” who came to join the Chickamaugans, but the Chickamaugans were not “Cherokee”. The “Cherokee” put a bounty on the heads of the leaders of the Chickamaugans. They were attempting to live among the “whites” and become like them. In the end, they sold the great majority of their land and a faction of them went to Oklahoma.

    Dragging Canoe the War-Chief of the Chickamaugans was not Cherokee though he did live among them. He called them “Virginians”, his name for those “Cherokee” who sold land they didn’t own to the Colonists.
    As for the “the assault” by the “army of about 500 men from Middle and East Tennessee and Kentucky “, the reality is that this vigilante squad massacred a village when the warriors were off to battle. They killed mostly women, children and old men. There may have been a few warriors there, but the main body of the warriors was elsewhere.
    By Treaty (1785 treaty of Hopewell), the Colonist were not even supposed to be settling in the area. They were violating the treaties in place.
    Further, the Chickamauga villages were found because of traitors like Nancy Ward. She and others like her led the colonists against the Chickamauga.
    The Chickamauga were attempting to protect the native lands of the people who lived in the territory…not the interlopers who became know as “Cherokee”. The Colonists were invading and violating Treaty

  11. I camped in this cave for 3 or 4 days with the Boy Scouts around 1964 0r 1965 before it was flooded. My dad went to a local lumber mill there and filled up the back of his Ford Galaxy with scrap wood so we could have a fire deep inside the cave. The ceilings at the entrance from memory was at least 40 feet high. In the back of the cave where it narrowed we belly crawled in to small rooms that opened up full of stalagmites and stalactites that had not been damaged much or chiseled away . I remember being scared that I would never find my way back out . There was an old abandoned row boat in the river flowing back into the cave and my Dad paddle some of us a few miles back in the cave. We had a flash light and a carbide lantern to light the way. Bats were clinging to the walls. The ceiling and sides were shaped like a round tube. When the lights were turned off it was as dark as black ink. One of the boys dropped his brand new carbide lantern in a shallow part of the dark river and I remember my Dad tying a rope around the boy’s waste before he dove in after it. He retrieved it but was shivering from cold and fear.

  12. Louis D Owens on

    I have been in the cave before it was flooded. Mining of saltpeter before and after the Civil War let heaps of debris, not roof falls primarily.
    The water that use to flow out now flows out at a Cave attraction in Alabama from the waters of the Tn River. Prior to the cave being flooded large timers were found way back in some of the rooms of the caves. The timers were many centuries old. A Neighbor now very elderly and frail as familiar with it.. Attempts to get the Man in charge of building the dam to get authorities to investigate it. I know his name but I can’t remember it at the moment, an angry man, refuse. He didn’t want to slow don the construction for Archeologist to investigate etc. a big hunk of pre history has been lost because of that. No cave no overhang in our region has not been visited camped or lived in or under over thousand of years.
    The tale of the evil Chikamaka, that is the correct spelling, Indians is just that a tale, told by now Famous “Indian Fighters.” ” Colonel Orr was rejected by Chattanoogans and White Men;s Society, because they knew the truth of the butchery of Running Water Town, Nickajack etc.. As a result Orr went back down the river and mine saltpeter, until his death living with the very families remaining who he led the massacre on. The “Great Indian Fighters” used a poplar saying that “Nits Make Lice” to butcher Indian women and children. They picked a time when the men were out fishing and hunting to attack. Only the women and children and old people were there, for their raid.
    Among them was a young couple, still in their teens. He was holding her when Orr’s men shot her in the back from the corn field and so it began.An infant with its guts having been ripped out by a sword or knife was trying to get to his dead mothers arms when he was seen and shot in his head”a an act of mercy?” by Robertson?
    The Chikamaka were a band when the Cherokee were to the East. Many Cherokee came to be part of the band and many white Settlers who could not make it or their abandoned children were taken in by them.
    The Settlers had no business in the Cherokee lands before 1877 and they fought to keep them out and keep their lands. and so on andon

  13. Kevin O’Keefe on

    During the two years before they closed Nickajack Dam, I went with my Dad every weekend surface hunting and digging at the site of the Chickamauga Indian Village under the 24 Brige on the side by the Cave. When they were building the bridge, you would walk away with hundreds of Indian Relics a day. I must have thousands of pieces from the site. This article brought back such good memories to me. Thanks.

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