Pioneer signatures preserved in Garden of the Gods chamber of secrets
A snowstorm ended Indian summer in the first week of November 1848. Four feet of snow blanketed the Garden of the Gods, breaking branches on oaks and plastering the cliffs. Jacob Spaulding and two fellow trappers camped nearby, after failing to find passage through the mountains before winter. The lack of forage forced the men to kill two of their mules, while the other two ate strips of pine bark and leafy boughs.
One day Spaulding waded through deep snow, following animal tracks along the base of the great northern rock. He noticed a small opening below the cliff. He felt the knife strapped to his waist, took a breath, and squeezed into the tight hole. Spaulding crawled upward over boulders and found himself on the floor of a narrow chamber. He breathed damp air and heard the steady drip of water falling from above. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, the nearest walls illuminated by a faint glimmer from the entrance.
After Spaulding’s discovery of the grotto, dubbed Spaulding’s Cavern, other visitors crawled inside and began carving names, initials, and dates into the soft sandstone sidewalls. The Lawrence Party, one of the first to inscribe names, stopped at the Garden on their two-month trek from Lawrence, Kansas to the goldfields west of Denver in 1858. The party included Julia Archibald Holmes, the first recorded woman to climb Pikes Peak, and Augustus Voorhees who incised his name.
After the Lawrence party, Spaulding’s Cavern became a popular pioneer message board. Passersby squeezed inside and engraved their names for the next 50 years. George C. Anderson described an 1871 visit. Fearing bears and rattlesnakes in the cave, his party amused themselves by “singing, hallooing, and shooting our revolvers, the report of which was deafening.” Eventually, the entrance was overgrown and by the early 20th century few people entered the cavern.
The forgotten cave was rediscovered in the 1930s. A 1935 article in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph exclaimed: “The lost cave in the Garden of the Gods has been found!” A group of men found a hole and dug it out. Inside, “The walls were carved with names and initials, which extended down to the very floor….”
They removed 75 truckloads of dirt and stone to uncover the inscriptions, which had been covered by rockfall. After a block fell from the ceiling, nearly killing a man, the City of Colorado Springs “ordered the entrance closed and barricaded, and no one is allowed to enter it.” Before the cave was sealed, a news photographer documented the names, finding a who’s who of local history, including William Henry Jackson, Mrs. Lou Frost, William Lierd, and Augustus Voorhees.
Spaulding’s Cavern remained closed until a gang of youths busted out the concrete plug blocking the cave's entrance in 1963. A few park employees entered the cave, and then promptly resealed it. Again the cave became lost, a part of Garden mythology. People heard about the mysterious sandstone cave but no one seemed to know exactly where it was located in the Garden of the Gods. In 2009, local historian Dave Hughes called for the city to open it and do an archeological excavation and document the inscriptions.
The chamber of secrets, however, remained shut tight until another group of vandals hammered out the plug in mid-2015. Afterward, they carved their names over pioneer inscriptions, including Danny McGee, who published a YouTube video of the cave.
In early June 2015, I was hiking at Garden of the Gods on a warm evening. Three visitors were stuck scrambling up Tourist Gully, a steep rock-walled crevice on the south side of North Gateway Rock. As a climber, I helped them down and warned them that if the park ranger had seen them, he would have called the Fire Department for rescue.
One of the women asked about the “cave around the corner.” I said, “Oh, that's been closed for 50 years.” She replied, “No, we saw it but were too scared to go inside.” I walked over to the west side of North Gateway Rock and sure enough, the entrance was hacked open.
The next morning I entered the cave to investigate. I crawled through a hole, then climbed stacked rubble to a room about 120 feet long, 45 to 50 feet high, and four to nine feet wide. Sandstone boulders that had fallen from the ceiling covered the cave's floor. Most of the pioneer inscriptions were engraved on the west wall. The sandstone, however, was wet with seeping water. Many of the old names were damaged by cave moisture, but I was able to find the prominent ones. Perhaps the most famous signee was pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson who etched "W.H. Jackson 1870," but most of his name is now illegible.
In the couple of hours, I spent inside Spaulding’s Cavern, I shot 398 photographs, the first photos made of the interior since 1935, of the cave and inscriptions. It was important to document this historic site dating to the earliest Anglo history of the Pikes Peak Region since it was unlikely that the cave would remain open for further analysis and I knew I wouldn't have another chance to get back into the cave.
After exiting, I called park ranger Snook Cippoletti and told him that the cave was open and dangerous, with the possibility of large blocks falling from the ceiling. He immediately cordoned off the area with yellow tape. “Someone’s been chipping away at the concrete for the past couple months,” said Snook. “It looks like they finally got through.”
Within 36 hours, a city crew resealed the cave entrance with a network of iron bars, which closed entry but allowed the cave to breathe and release moisture, which hopefully will preserve this register of historic autographs until another gang cracks the chamber open in 50 years.
The shuttered cave remains protected as a time capsule of the Pikes Peak region’s earliest history, undoubtedly containing artifacts from the Native Americans, including the Utes, who frequented the Garden of the Gods, as well as relics buried in the rubble from later explorers and pioneers.
My archive of photographs taken in Spalding's Cavern on June 4, 2015, will be preserved and archived in my collection of photographs at the Pikes Peak Library District.
This article was originally published in The Cheyenne Edition in Colorado Springs in July 2015.