A Bats Life

Block Number: 128

By Ginger Todd


The popular tourist attraction of Linville Caverns, located on Highway 221 N. deep inside Humpback Mountain (once called Sunnalee) where the North Fork of the Catawba River has its headwaters, has joined the McDowell Quilt Trail with two quilt blocks entitled “A Bat’s Life” and “Underground Rainbow”. The privately owned caverns, although smaller than most commercial ones, offer a perspective of what takes place below the ground surface that is unique, interesting and educational for visitors of all ages.
The caverns remained unknown to man through centuries as they were formed, although native Cherokee Indians may have had knowledge of them. The first white man record we have of their discovery is in 1822 when Henry Colton of Eastern N.C. hired local guide David Franklin to lead a fishing expedition in the mountains. Curious as to how the native trout were swimming in and out of a small stream that appeared to be coming from a solid granite boulder, he discovered an opening that lead to a natural phenomenon. He described the series of rooms and narrow passages as “wondrous splendors of the hidden world”.
During the interim before its next notable and official discovery, it is believed that Confederate Army deserters from the American Civil War (War Between the States) used the caverns as a hideout the years 1861-65. Lore has it that they secretly received food and supplies from nearby families in return for odd jobs such as mending leather shoes, smoke from their campfire leading the way to the entrance.
In 1884 inventor Thomas Edison sent mineralogist William E. Hidden as team leader in search of platinum, a soft metal which can occur free in nature. Edison believed platinum was needed for the implementation of his incandescent lamp. Mr. Hidden did not come upon his quest, but is recognized for discovering that of the green gemstone Hiddenite, which was named after him. While exploring the caverns Hidden and his aides scratched their names on a rock they believed to be at the end of the cave, including that of T. Edison dated July 21, 1884, now known as “Signature Rock”.
In 1937 a group of local Marion businessmen formed a corporation and purchased the cavern property for development and tourism. After much excavation using mule drawn carts, mud, silt and rock were removed, retaining walls and lights installed, and it was first opened to the public for touring with instant success in July 1939. Unfortunately, a devastating flood in August 1940 washed away the entrance bridge, took out the power plant and filled the caverns with mud, and the group disbanded, ending their venture.
Spencer Collins, grandfather to Sarah Davis who is now the current President of the privately owned family corporation, bought the cavern and surrounding acreage, restoring and improving it for visitation and preservation. In the family over 73 years and after many massive improvements, the majesty and wonder of the cavern passages filled with stalagmites and stalactites continues to amaze visitors. Sarah’s son Zach Medford will be the fourth generation in the family to continue the operation of the caverns.
Most of the over 1,000 caves in N.C. are fissure caves, produced by weathering and physical earth movements. Linville Caverns is a true limestone cave in that rock is chemically dissolved by the mixture of acidic ground waters and carbon dioxide. Gradually over time, millions of drops seep through the fissures and slowly eat away at the limestone producing natural passages as well as various translucent icicle-like formations when mineral deposits and trace minerals accumulate. It is an active, living cave in that the process is continuously growing to this day evidenced by the wet and drippy interior. Conservation and protection of this extremely fragile environment is important, as centuries of mineral growth can be wiped out in seconds with one carless touch.
Among all the interesting formations, such as “Headache Rock” , of special interest is the “Bottomless Pool” in which diver Chris Elmore descended to 250 feet several years ago before being forced to terminate the dive being prevented to go further due to the continual narrow configuration of rocks. Although the water stream continues downward, it is unknown how deep it goes.
The native Rainbow Trout that still exist in the cavern’s small stream are not born blind, but a film eventually covers their eyes formed by the total darkness and they have little if any sight. Other creatures may be found in the constant dark, damp environment such as species of the crane cricket, daddy long legs, orb weaving spider, salamander and cave moth which manage to survive in the year-round temperature of 52 degrees.
The caverns serve as a hibernating home to the Eastern Pipistrelle bat (about the size of an adult human thumb) the only true flying mammal, now on the endangered list for White-Nose Syndrome. The fungus has no risk to humans, although highly contagious to the bats. These smart, sonar system equipped, insect eaters are a vital part of our environment and Linville Caverns is working closely with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the N.C. Wildlife Commission to control and end the spread of the disease. Although not native to the area, Brown Bats are sometimes noted during hibernation periods also.
On March 11, 2013 the two eye-catching blocks, 4’ x4’ each, were installed by Mike Lucas, Jack Raker and Alan Scholl on each side of the cavern’s gift shop entrance and Chairwoman Jill Lucas presented Sarah Davis and her son Zach Medford the McDowell Quilt Trail Certificate of Authenticity. On the left, “A Bat’s Life”, Block #128, depicts not only the cavern’s features, but is commemorative of the Pipistrelle bat that may one day be extinct. The block on the right, “Underground Rainbow”, #129 represents the blind trout and stream that brought about the initial discovery of the caverns.
In following the Quilt Trail to view these unique blocks, be sure to take in the opportunity to tour the spectacular natural forming creation in the caverns as well! For further background information, check “Hollow Hills of Sunnalee: The Linville Cavern Story” by Dr. Cato Holler, Jr., for further background information, found at the McDowell Public Library.

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