Fishing and a hole in the ground gave start to Branson‘s fame more than 100 years ago. Today, Branson, Missouri reigns as a highly popular Middle American tourist destination in the Ozark Mountains. In fact, some seven to eight million folks visit the city of 10,000 residents each year.
The Osage Indians first discovered the cave they called Devil’s Den around 1500, but it wasn’t until the 1860’s that geologists began to explore. By the 1880’s adventurers would lower themselves on ropes 200 feet into the main chamber. One of those daring visitors was a newspaper publisher who began to spread the word about the cave’s natural beauty.
After the Civil War, a group of Union veterans formed a mining company hoping to profit from the rich bat guano that filled the cave. They also hoped to find marble, but the cave turned out to be limestone.
In 1894, William Henry Lynch, a Canadian mining expert, purchased the cave sight unseen. He opened it for public tours employing his two daughters as guides.
By the 1920’s the cave was a well-established attraction with newly built roads for tourists arriving by car or by hiking from a nearby train stop.
However, in 1946, the cave became the backbone of a new tourist attraction, a theme park. Chicagoans Hugo and Mary Herschend moved to the Ozark area and worked out a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave- as it had become known. Around the mid 1950’s they recreated an old mining town around the cave entrance to entertain guests and the structures grew into Silver Dollar City theme park.
While Silver Dollar City continues to boom and now encompasses 100 acres (showcasing a demonstrating colony of resident craftsmen and numerous rides) I wanted to explore Marvel Cave. A tour takes about an hour and involves some 750 steps up and down fifteen stories through some narrow, slippery passageways. I entered the massive main chamber where shafts of light penetrate the walls from a sinkhole opening in the ground. The sun’s illumination glowed with what many photographers call “God rays”.
I proceeded down stairs into an immense Cathedral Room that belittles you with its staggering proportions: 204 feet high, 225 feet wide, and 411 feet long. The chamber is so large that five hot air balloons once flew inside as a stunt.
My tour continued past some stalactites and stalagmites but the cavern is not as beautiful as some I have toured. The delight is walking through the huge open airy underground world and seeing a lovely waterfall- 505 feet below ground level. This sight is worthy of the cave’s name and is truly marvelous.
However, you must then climb up numerous flights and by the time you reach the end, you are happy a cable train waits to assist the final ascent back to the woodsy hills of the theme park.
I regret I did not have time to ride Silver Dollar City’s newest roller coaster ride. The Outlaw Run features the first and only double barrel roll on a wood coaster that twists upside down with three inversions. On second thought, maybe I don’t regret it.
Be sure to explore Marvel Cave.