In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kublai Khan” (1797)
The Lost Sea
140 Lost Sea Road
Many moons ago a large, prehistoric jaguar stumbled into this cave in eastern Tennessee between the modern metropolises of Chattanooga and Knoxville. The large cat may have wandered in but it never saw the light again. Lost in the inky darkness of the cave, the cat stumbled, fell and died. Its remains and a couple paw prints remained undisturbed until two curious cavers discovered them in Craighead Caverns in 1939. Since then, according to Christopher Coleman’s Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, “visitors have felt something akin to the tail of a large animal brush against them. Locals swear that a phantom jaguar haunts the cave.”
Being a weekday morning in early December, I was visiting long past the usual tourist season. The visitor’s center was quiet with a few employees putting up Christmas decorations. As a child, I always collected travel brochures when I went on family vacations and brochures for The Lost Sea were always available. I was thrilled to be finally visiting and even more thrilled to see that I was getting a private tour as one of the few visitors that morning.
My guide and I descended the futuristic tunnel to the caverns and he began his spiel: explaining the stalagmites and stalactites and how they were formed. We entered a round room called the “Council Room” where the Cherokee who once owned the cave may have gathered. The ceiling of this room bears beautiful and rare ornamentations known as “anthodites,” a fragile, flower-like formation. The Cherokee were among the earliest explorers of the cave and they left behind some artifacts. In the 1820s, the property was owned by a Chief Craighead for whom the cave was named. At some point after this time the cave was “discovered” by the white pioneers moving into the old Cherokee lands. Initially, families living in the area used the large, cold and dark cave rooms for food storage, but eventually an operation was set up to extract saltpeter for gunpowder.
As with so many caves throughout the South, during the Civil War the cave’s saltpeter works became strategically important. In fact, the ceilings still bear signatures that were left there by soldiers and visitors. According to an old diary from the period, the cave’s guard was infiltrated by a Union spy who intended on blowing up the whole operation. Once discovered, the spy was dragged out of the cave, tied to a large gum tree and shot. Of course, some have tied this story with the spirits that may haunt the cave, though, as of yet, there’s no real evidence to make that connection.
Following the tumult of the Civil War, the cave saw a variety of uses including mushroom farm, a setting for moonshine operations and as a fallout shelter during the Cold War. In 1947, the cave opened as the Cavern Tavern, a nightclub in the Big Room just inside the historical entrance of the cave. The tavern owners installed a bar and a dance floor with a band in an adjacent room which aided the acoustics. Patrons entering the tavern would traverse a steep staircase to descend into the club and once they’d had a few drinks and danced the night away, would again have to traverse the staircase again. According to the guide, resulting injuries from drunk patrons forced the closer of the club after a few months.
We were standing in the Hanging Rock Chamber (a round room created by a whirlpool with a ceiling of jagged rock) as the guide told me about the club in the adjacent Big Room. The room is not usually open during regular tours, though it is used as part of the Wild Cave Tours and groups spending the night within the cave stay here. No mention of legends had come up at this point, so I decided to ask about ghosts.
“I’ve read that there are a few legends of ghosts associated with this cave.”
The guide looked rather uneasy so I added a postscript, “I’d be interested in hearing anything you may know if you’re not forbidden to talk about it.” The guide relaxed a bit.
“I’ve had some experiences here.” He went on to explain that he had had an experience in the Big Room. He was in the cave with a group spending the night and was seated on the infamous staircase reading. He was startled by a sudden drop in temperature at which point he said he heard voices around him whispering. He jumped up and went outside for a little while.
He went on to relate the experience of a maintenance man who was gathering bags of trash in the same room. The maintenance man heard the sound of footsteps following him as he moved through the room. As he began to leave, a voice uttered his name from just behind him. He fled.
The guide and I began to leave the Hanging Rock Chamber, but I wanted to get a photograph of the entrance to the Big Room. Since we were on a private tour, I was allowed to venture into the room to see the dance floor and the staircase. The way into the room was steep and I was out of breath by the time we were inside. The room felt colder and there was an odd, possibly chaotic energy there. My instincts said, “You shouldn’t be here.” I ignored them and took a few pictures, though I could tell the guide wanted to go as well. As we hurried out, I remarked on the energy. He felt it too.
I recalled something a guide said when I was visiting Kentucky’s monstrous Mammoth Cave last year. After turning out the lights we were treated to the pitch black darkness that can only be found in caves and at the deepest reaches of the ocean. The guide spoke of how caves can wreck havoc on the senses, especially where there is the sound of water: the ears can be tricked into hearing voices. In the case of Craighead Caverns, the cave is quite humid and there are large amounts of water, though mostly in the lower reaches. In the upper reaches, I occasionally heard water dripping, but it was fairly sporadic and not noisy enough to be mistaken for voices.
We discussed spirits as we moved through the caverns towards the Lost Sea. My guide mentioned that he occasionally saw shadowy figures dart through the caverns. I inquired about the spirits of the ancient jaguar and the Union spy. He had heard the stories but didn’t elaborate any further.
The guide returned to his spiel about the discovery of the Lost Sea. As it turns out, the sea really was lost for quite a time. A young man playing in the cave in 1905 was the first to discover the large, flooded chamber. When he told others about it, they tried to find the room, but were met only with passages that were flooded. As Ben Sands grew older he continued to tell about the lost sea that only he had seen. It wasn’t until many years later that the sea was found and the entire cave developed as a commercial “show cave.” It opened as The Lost Sea in 1965.
The sea itself is immense. The only words I could utter when it was first revealed were, “Oh my!” As we got out on the second largest underground lake (as they call it) in the world, I did feel a bit of a chill peering into the darkness beyond the boat. The lake is lit with occasional lights along the edge and this allows visitors to see the large Rainbow Trout that have been stocked within the lake, but it is still fairly dark. Seeing the large, dark shape in the water of the first trout approaching the boat was a bit disconcerting and soon the water around the boat was swarming with them. They’re fed on every tour and that has contributed to their large size.
After exiting the boat the guide and I began our ascent back to the entrance. We paused for a moment near a dark, narrow passage that was another part of the Wild Cave Tour. The guide mentioned that he didn’t like to walk that area alone and he offered to let me take a quick look. We walked a few yards into the passage and something in the back of my mind kept repeating, “You don’t need to be here.” My guide remarked that he felt another energy change and felt a heaviness in his chest. I didn’t sense any of that, but it felt warmer in the space, a feeling that I somehow equated in my mind with hot breath. I knew I did not want to go any further so I took a quick picture and we returned to the trail.
Overall, the cave tour is quite pleasant. Where some cave experiences can be overdone (using music, colored lights and other nonsense), this cave is perfectly lovely and it has been left in its mostly natural state. The wonder of nature’s creation and the cave’s unique history shows through. My guide (and he knows who he is) was friendly and very interesting. I’m grateful he shared his experiences with me. If you’re looking for an interesting tour in East Tennessee, be sure to stop at Exit 60 for The Lost Sea!
- Coleman, Christopher K. Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2010.
- The Lost Sea Adventure. The History of The Lost Sea Adventure: America’s Largest Underground Lake. Sweetwater, TN, No date.
- Matthews, Larry F. Caves of Knoxville and the Great Smokey Mountains. Huntsville, AL: National Speleological Society, 2008.