Located 10 miles west of Corydon on State Road 62, the Wyandotte cave system has a history that predates the modern world. The limestone caves are known for their majestic mineral formations and have been popular with tourists since they were first opened to the public in the 1850s. Surprisingly, especially given their beauty and popularity, the Wyandotte Cave system is only the 5th largest cave system in Indiana.
The cave system is made up of two separate caves. Big Wyandotte is older and has more than 9 miles of mapped routes. It is known for its long, open passageways and large rooms. It is home to two record-breaking formations – “Monument Mountain,” the world’s largest underground mountain, and “Pillar of the Constitution,” the tallest stalagmite formation in the world. Little Wyandotte is the newer, smaller, stepchild of the cave system. Newer is a relative term, however. Both caves took millions of years to develop.
The cave system began to form around 2 million years ago, as rushing water dissolved and hollowed out limestone formations. As early as 7000 BC, early inhabitants of Indiana used the cave for shelter, to store food, and to mine natural resources. Minerals like flint (to make stone tools and start fires) and aragonite (to make pipes and jewelry) were chief among the substances utilized by native populations. Humans were far from the only species to find uses for the caves. Both caves are home to more than 20 animal species, including bats, salamanders, and crickets.
It is thought that European settlers likely didn’t enter Big Wyandotte Cave until around 1789. The first settlers were likely brought to the caves by Native American guides. Local lore attributes the first such visit to a man by the name of F. I. Bentley.
During the War of 1812, Americans found their first use for Big Wyandotte Cave. After discovering that the cave was a rich source for saltpeter, a key component of gunpowder, the cave was heavily mined. It is said that William Henry Harrison (governor of Indiana territory and later 9th President of the United States) even visited the cave to check on operations. The cave was also used as storage for troop supplies. In addition to saltpeter, early Hoosiers also mined the cave for Epsom salts, which were commonly used for medicinal purposes.
Historically, Big Wyandotte Cave has been known by a number of names, most of which directly correlate to its functional uses. Those names include “Epsom Salts Cave,” “Saltpeter Cave,” and “Mammoth Cave of Indiana.” The name Wyandotte was eventually chosen to honor the Wyandotte Indians that called the area home prior to Indiana’s statehood.
In 1819, Henry Peter Rothrock purchased 4,000 acres of land from the government at a cost of $1.25 per acre. Rothrock, a veteran of the War of 1812, saw the land as the ideal location to begin a lumber operation. He had no interest in the cave itself, only the trees growing on top.
After moving from Pennsylvania, Rothrock and his family built a dam and saw mill on the Blue River. They later expanded their operations to include a grist mill. To the Rothrock family, Big Wyandotte Cave was a nuisance in those early years. As more settlers arrived to the area, there were constant complaints from neighbors whose animals got lost in the cave. Local government officials eventually requested that Rothrock board up the cave’s entrance. In those early years, the Rothrock family did mine the caves for Epsom salts, but otherwise left it alone.
It wasn’t until the early 1850s that the caves began to gain notoriety for their beauty. Cave exploration in America had begun in the eighteenth century, but it didn’t really take off in popularity until the nineteenth century. In 1854, geologist H.C. Hovey visited the Big Wyandotte cave and was inspired to write several articles about it in his book on caves. He hired an artist to make sketches of several of the cave’s more elegant assets.
Prior to the publication of Hovey’s book, Big Wyandotte Cave was only known locally. However, Hovey’s book drew national attention to the formation. Soon, Rothrock was inundated with requests to tour his cave.
Seeking to capitalize on the newfound interest in his cave, Rothrock decided to begin a tourist business. He devised a scheme to charge tourists a fee to explore the caves. It is thought that his operation was the fourth oldest commercial cave in the United States. The tours became enormously popular, with visitors coming from all over the Midwest.
There was only one problem with Rothrock’s fledging tourist enterprise: the cave was located in a rural area, with the large town of Corydon more than 10 miles away. In the 1850s, travel by horseback or stagecoach from Big Wyandotte Cave to accommodations in Corydon could take upwards of 2 hours. Rothrock decided to open his own hotel to overcome this difficulty.
Amidst this growing interest in American caves, Little Wyandotte Cave (aka “New Cave” or “Sibert’s Cave”) was discovered nearby by Rothrock’s neighbors. In 1851, the Sibert family discovered the entrance to the cave while rescuing their dog from a sinkhole. It was almost 100 years later, in the late 1940s, that the Rothrock family purchased Little Wyandotte and united the Wyandotte Cave system under a single owner.
The caves remained in the Rothrock family until 1966. That year, the family sold the caves, along with over 1,000 acres of land, to the State of Indiana. The state added the acreage and caves to the Harrison-Crawford State Forest (now part of the O’Bannon Woods State Park). The caves were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.
In 2009, it was discovered that Indiana’s bat population was being decimated by a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome. To protect the bat population, many Indiana caves, including Wyandotte, were closed to the public for a number of years. Big Wyandotte Cave is home to one of the largest bat populations in the Midwest. The caves reopened in 2016 and are typically open to the public during the summer months.
Want to Know More?
Learn more about the fungal infection threatening a variety of bat populations across the United States in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’s article “White-nose Syndrome in Bats.“
Download THIS free comprehensive map of the Wyandotte Cave System created by the Indiana Geologic and Water Survey in 2018.