Weekly Republican, Jerseyville, Illinois, February 23, 1870
The “king of day” had not risen when we started, and as we passed through the village of Otterville the good people were at morning prayer. Continuing westward some three miles we crossed the south branch of Otter Creek, and emerging from the shadows began climbing the great hill in the bright glancing rays of the morning sun. Having gained the top of the ridge the horses struck a brisk trot and we went bowling over the smooth road for seven miles, reined up at the head of Graham Hollow. Leaving our horses in the stable of a friend we commenced our exploration.
In a deep valley two miles long, on either side of which the rocky bluffs are nearly three hundred high. The mouth of this valley opens on the Illinois River three miles above Grafton.
Such an exposure of rock makes the valley an interesting field for the geologist; and many rare specimens can be found here. The upper rocks are carboniferous, in the middle devonian series here there is a thin stratum, ten feet thick, of black shade, very highly bituminous and saturated with oil, these indications have led several parties to prospect for coal oil in the vicinity, but it had not been found in paying quantities. We have taken from these rocks the ores of lead, zinc, iron and antimony.
Among the pioneers of this vicinity was William Graham — died some two months ago—from whom the hollow takes its name. Uncle Billy, as he was called, was a veteran hunter, and kept until the day of his death a pack of hounds. Being on a hunting excursion with him a few months before his death he had pointed out to us a rocky part of the ridge on the west side of the hollow near its mouth, as a resort of wild cats, which, when pursued by the hounds always sought refuge in their deep dens in the rocks. He had once descended into one of these dens far enough to see there was a cavern, but had never explored it.
Having procured a stout rope from one of the farmers in the Hollow, we repaired to the spot, and after considerable search, found an aperture in the hillside among the bushes. The cleft in the rock was some ten feet long, and two feet wide. The descent, which was not quite perpendicular, seemed eacy enough so we lit our candle, and prepared to go down, to our surprise, we discovered that a strong blast of wind immediately extinguished our light. We gathered up a handful of leaves and threw them in the hole but they were blown out with some force. We finally descended without a light but found that the aperture, a short distance down, grew so narrow that it was impossible to go farther.
The wind was blowing from the southeast; going in this direction for some distance we finally found another aperture in the rock going in horizontally and only sufficient in size to admit but one person. From the outside, we could see that it led to a larger opening which, upon inspection, revealed no fllor or bottom, but a dark fathomless abyss. We crawled to the edge and held our candle over but could see nothing distinctly; we rolled stones over in the darkness and could hear them rebound as from striking in a well; down, down, until the last sound came up from the bottom with a faint trembling echo.
Having secured the rope about our body we crawled, feet foremost, through the aperture, and not without some misgivings as to the result, let ourselves swing off over the unknown space. Our companions who held the rope above, slowly lowered us down amid many admonitions to be careful and immediately give the signal when we wished to ascend. We held a lighted candle in one hand by the light of which we could see that there was an immense cavern before us, the roof of which was still many feet above us. Descending some fifteen feet, we were able to get a foothold on a ledge of rock some three feet wide. Loosing ourselves from the rope, we found by following this ledge that it led to a smaller cavern to the left, the floor of this was covered with dirt, which was beaten smooth and hard by the tracks of animals which still inhabit the place. We followed this opening which was five or six feet wide and twenty-five or thirty feet high, a hundred feet or more with our revolver in hand ready for instant use, but saw no animal. We then returned to the entrance, and assisted one of our companions, the indomitable Alex, to descend and bear us company.
The great, dark depth was still unknown below us, and by throwing stones into the space we judged that the bottom was too far down for our rope to reach. Following the ledge which still continued to the right, we came to what seemed the end of the larger cave, and while Alex held his candle above, we swung ourselves from ledge to ledge, and with some difficulty finally arrived after descending nearly forty feet to the bottom of the end of the cave.
We had hardly set foot on the solid bottom when our ears were assailed by a chorus of shrill voices that, for an instant made us feel as if a very cold piece of ice had slid down the back of our neck, for it forcibly reminded us of the remark of the man of whom we borrowed the rope that “The hill was full of rattle snakes”; or we might have suddenly set our feet in a nest of Uncle Billy’s wildcats. Our hand instinctively sought a weapon, and we were somewhat reassured by hearing above us on the ledge, the ominous click of Alex’s revolver. A moments examination revealed the fact that the noises were produced by scores of disgusting bats, which were hibernating in the clefts and crevices of the rocks.
With our lighted candle, we proceeded to examine the cavern, which seems to be an immense fissure, of which the roof is perhaps more than fifty feet high; it varies in width from five to twenty or thirty feet. In some places, the floor is smooth and even, in others covered with huge masses that have fallen from the roof. The walls are smooth and incrusted with a secretion from the magnesian limestone. In some places this secretion assumes the form of corregated folds that is beautiful beyond description. Stalactites hang like pendant icicles. It was the appearance of water at one time having suddenly congealed in the act of flowing down the sides.
By the flickering light of our candle we wandered down into the silent depths several hundred feet and to make the allusion to Hades more pointed, we came to a small stream of water running across the floor from one cleft to another. A miniature copy of the fabled Styx. The water, however was not poisonous for we drank of it heartily and found it pure and sweet; neither did grim old Charon present himself to ferry us over, in fact we had no need for we stepped over and forgot in a moment that we were in Elysium, in contemplating the wonders of this subterranean formation.
A strong current of air blew through the cavern, our candle was nearly consumed, and as we had no others, we retraced our steps to where Alex stood guard above on the ledge. We soon clambered up to his side, approached the entrance, fastened the rope about us and were drawn up into the welcome light of the sun again. How far the cavern extends, we do not know, want of sufficient light prevented our further exploring it.
On the point of the next bluff, but a few hundred yards distant, and overlooking the Illinois River, there is one of the most interesting ancient mounds in this section of the country. It is three hundred feet around the base and twenty-five feet high. Great numbers of that ancient people are buried in the mound. We exhumed six skeletons, one skull in perfect preservation, numerous curious trinkets, and a mass of fresh-water shells. We left it only when the gathering shades of evening gently admonished us that the day was ended.
Contributed by Marty Crull and his volunteers.