Discovery in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave

By: Hubert Clark Crowell

On a cool March Friday in 1972, John Wallace checked out his four seat airplane at the Charlie Brown Airport in Atlanta for a flight to Tennessee. The plan was for John's wife Youlanda, and their children Paul and Erika along with Art Smith, and Jack Pace to drive up to the Cumberland Mountain State Park in Crossville, Tennessee and rent a cabin for the weekend. My wife Kathy, our six-year-old daughter, Deanna and I would fly with John to the Crossville Memorial Airport in Crossville and we would spend a day of caving the next day.

We would alternate driving and flying in order to have transportation from the airport to the caves we visited in the southeast. Half of the group would fly and the other half would drive. This trip was quite a nice one along the interstate and then we followed the state road into Crossville. It was after dark when we arrived and the airport's lights were not on. The airport is on top of a mountain and we were a little nervous about finding a place to land. John's wife was there but could not contact anyone at the airport. John at last managed to radio someone and they turned on the lights.

It was a large cabin at the park and we settled in for a good night of rest before the trip the next day. We planned to visit Devilstep Hollow Cave with the family and then the four of us would explore Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave on the other side of the mountain. Kathy and Deanna spent a lovely day hiking around the park while we went caving.

Grassy Cove, Tennessee

A few miles southeast of Crossville is located Grassy Cove, A depression between two mountains that by all rights should be a big natural lake. The rain water that falls in the cove runs north into a cave, then emerges at the Devils Sink Hole, south of the cove and over the mountain. This long mountain contains many caves and a major stream that flow completely under it. Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave is well known for being a dusty cave and dust masks are handy to avoid histoplasmosis, a lung disease common in dusty caves and chicken houses. I did come down with a light case of this later and it could very well have been from this cave. The doctor wanted to know if I had been around any chicken houses.

We entered the cave and debated about exploring the west dry passages or to venture down the waterfall at the east end of the cave. There were reported to be more caves below the water fall. However, ropes would be required and we were not prepared for that. The water fall room sounded too good to pass up so we opted for going down through the chasm and to the water fall.

The Chasm is a short drop that can be climbed if you chimney out to a narrow portion of the drop. We however chose to use the rope for the drop. We continued down to the waterfall room and poked around looking for any easy lead to continue on. John was checking behind a large rock on the north side of the passage when he noticed air blowing from the rocks. We all got excited and started helping with the easy dig.

In less than an hour we had a small hole that looked to open up below. I was elected to give it a try, I am not sure why I was first but I was grateful. I went feet first into the hole removing my hard hat in order to squeeze through. At the bottom there was a low craw that went to the northeast for about 50 feet and then a ledge with a short drop of about 5 feet into a large room sloping downward. I studied the floor and could not make out any tracks. I sat there yelling encouragement to the others to come on down. We had found something big.

I felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon when I made that first step on the floor below and left that first foot print where no one had ever stepped before. The mud had a black coating on top and when you raised your foot it left a very clear orange print about 1 inch deep. It felt strange to walk down into that huge room and then look back at the lonely set of foot prints that would soon turn into a well-worn path.

We explored the new extension for the rest of the day finding formations along the west wall and Crystal Gypsum Flowers covering the floor as the ceiling became lower near the end. We crawled through some breakdown into a much smaller room at the end and could find no way to continue.

We were all very excited about our new find and planed to return to map this new section the following month. When Jack Pace moved to Nashville many years later and told the caving group there about the discovery, they quickly returned to the cave, mapped the "Georgia Room" and discovered the the "Nashville Extension", extensive and well decorated passages leading from our March 18, 1972 discovery.

We returned on Saturday, April 22, 1972 with the additional assistance of my wife's cousin, Bill Meier, and mapped the March 18th Discovery. I was working for Eastman Kodak Co. At the time and had access to the latest home movie cameras. I was trying out a new model with very low light capability for taking movies in the cave. We used a Coleman Lantern for the light source and the shutter speed set slow to capture as much light as possible.

As of the close of 2013, the largest room in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave does not have a name. As I was the first person to set foot there, I take pleasure in naming the passage that averages thirty feet high by sixty feet wide, and one thousand feet long, the "Georgia Room."

View the Discovery in Grass Cove Movie Clip
View Devilstep Hollow Cave Trip Movie Clip

Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave now ranks eleventh in the state of Tennessee for the longest cave. I would like to think that we made it a little easier for future cavers to discover the miles of cave that followed in this great cave. Great discoveries were made in the following years, then in the late 70's the Smoky Mountain Grotto sealed our small hole with a slab of concrete marked "S.M.G."

1 Blue Spring Cave 33 miles

2 Cumberland Caverns 27 miles

3 Xanadu Cave System 23 miles

4 Rumbling falls Cave 15 miles

5 Nunley Mountain Cave System 15 miles

6 Big Bone Cave 15 miles

7 Snail Shell Cave System 9 miles

8 Rice Cave 9 miles

9 Cuyler Cave 8 miles

10 Dunbar Cave 8 miles

11 Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave 8 miles

12 Wolf River 7 miles

13 Haws Spring Cave 7 miles

14 Zarathustra 7 miles

15 Camps Gulf Cave 6 miles

This was the first major discovery that I was involved with and I have been more excited about caving than ever and the challenge of not only exploring but documenting caves with maps, pictures, movies, and articles.

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Follow up Comments:

Apr 13 2012

Layne Skidmore
It is a trip to read this article and get info on saltpeter cave. As a teenager in the 80's I visited the cave many times growing up in Crossville TN. I live in Dayton OH now and often reminisce about the fun times we had exploring the cave with our church group or when it was just me and a few friends sneaking of to the cave with out our moms knowing. Nothing better than an over night trip in the cave with out adult supervision. We had a few maps back then but it was tough to find any.So thanks to those who worked mapping the cave I prob used one of your maps. Maybe someday I will return I have talked about it enough. Until then I will enjoy our family trips to Mammoth cave in KY , but it ain't the same.
Layne Skidmore

January 31, 2010

David Seaborn
Growing up in Oak Ridge, Tenn. in the late 60's and early 70's my scoutmaster would take us on weekend outings to a saltpeter cave near Crossville, Tn. We would spend the weekend in the cave exploring. I remember the cave entrance was on a mans property, a short walk in the woods to a fairly small opening that lead to a huge cave. Do you think that this could be the cave?

David Seaborn

January 7,2010

Charles Clark
Wow small world I just found your article and realized That I had participated somewhat with the Knoxville extension of the cave. Back in the early eighties I belong to the smoky mountain grotto and helped some small amount with surveying this section. Iím just traveling through the area with my kids now young adults and telling them about the cave and how it would be cool to do a casual explore. My home since then, Colorado , is not home to many caves and we have only explored two. Fulford and some small caves near Glenwood Springs.

Thanks for the post it is cool to remember names like Marion Smith whom I have not thought of for 20 years.
Anthony Prough

David, I am sure this is the same cave, "1.6 miles west of Grassy Cove community, on the east slope of Brady Mountain, at an elevation of 1,890 feet. The cave entrance, which is 3 feet high and 6 feet wide, opens out into a spacious entrance room." From the Caves of Tennessee by:Thomas C. Barr, Jr.
Hubert Crowell

January 8,2009

I just found your article, "Discovery in Grassy Cove Saltpeter Cave" while idly surfing different articles on the Cumberland Plateau and Grassy Cove.

I was an avid spelunker in the 1970's and early 1980's. I read about your discovery of "the Nashville Extension". I, along with Jeff Sims and Jay Cox, were the ones who mapped Grassy Cove and put the "Nashville Extension" label on your discover. However, we were mapping the cave from 1975 to 1977. It was at a Tennessee Cave Survey meeting in April 1977 when Larry Matthews told us of the large room below the north wall of the Waterfall Room that you describe in your article. We returned the first weekend in May and found your room. The second weekend in May we returned to map it. On this trip a deep canyon chimney downward from "the Nashville Extension" led to a stream passage that ran for over 3000 feet under the full length of the dusty "Subway Passage" above. The passage was full of formations such as soda straws which was unlike any other part of the dusty Saltpeter cave. On our map we named the new stream passage the "Knoxville Extension" as that is where we were from at the time.

However, this stream passage was very much like a stream passage I explored with Richard Schreiber and Marion Smith in nearby Gouffre (Blowhole in Tom Barr's book). We never dye traced the streams to see if the Mill Cave stream became the Knoxville Extension stream to become the Gouffre stream and finally the Run to the Mill Cave stream (that cave is on the Sequatchie Valley side of Brady Mountain), but that was the theory.

Anyway, it is great to read some missing history of Grassy Cove Saltpeter as I never heard the story of the "Nashville Extension's" discovery.
Thanks for the article.

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