The Lost Sea, the world’s underground wonder

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Deep in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, about 80 kilometers south of Knoxville, Tennessee, sits a wonder 140 feet below ground: the Lost Sea, the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the United States and the second largest in the world. The lake was discovered by a teenager, Ben Sands in 1905. The 13-year-old boy wiggled through the tiny, muddy opening 300 feet underground and found himself in a huge room half filled with water. The room was so large that his light was swallowed up by the darkness long before reaching the far wall or the ceiling. For the rest of his life, Sands delighted in describing how he threw mudballs as far as he could into the blackness and heard nothing but splashes in every direction.

Global Warming has had little effect on the Sea’s level, but a drought can drain it. It was a drought that led to Ben Sands’ discovery when the water fell below the level of a connecting passage. It was lost again for 60 years (no one believed Ben) until the passage was drained by another drought. Now a blasted-out tunnel provides year-round access to the sea, and Ben (at age 73) was finally given credit and a plaque in the cave lodge.

Located in the greater realm known as Craighead Caverns, an extensive cave system that is located between Sweetwater and Madisonville, Tennessee, the Lost Sea attracts about 2,000 visitors a day from all over the world. The full extent of the Lost Sea is still not known despite the efforts of teams of divers armed with modern exploration equipment. Beneath the calm waters of the four-and-a-half-acre lake, divers have discovered an even larger series of rooms completely filled with water. More than 13 acres of water have been mapped so far and still no end to the lake has been found. One diver ventured into the water-filled rooms with a sonar device. Hugging the wall to assure his ability to find his way back, he took soundings in all directions and found nothing but more water.

The Lost Sea was first developed as a tourist destination in 1915. The earliest recorded visitors to these famous caves were found in 1939 by off duty guides Jack Kyker and Clarence Hicks. They were exploring the lower caves during their off-work hours. It is considered that the history of The Lost Sea can date back to prehistoric times. The attraction’s website refers to a giant jaguar that once roamed the caves 20,000 years ago. The animal was apparently lost in the caves and is thought to have wandered for days before plunging into a crevice. The bones of this Pleistocene jaguar were reported to the current owners of the cave, Dr. W.J. Cameron and W.E. Michael, of Sweetwater, Tennessee. Its bones were discovered in 1939 and some are on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Plaster casts of its tracks along with other bones are displayed in the visitor centre of the Lost Sea.

Anthodite Formation Craighead Cavern
 

The fascinating history of Craighead Caverns provides plenty of spice for tour guides as they lead groups on the hike through the immense rooms leading to the Lost Sea in the deepest reaches of the cave. Along the way visitors are treated to a wide variety of interesting formations including several displays of rare crystalline structures called “anthodites.” These fragile, spiky clusters commonly known as “cave flowers” are found in only a few of the world’s caves. Their abundance in Craighead Caverns led the United States Department of the Interior to designate the Lost Sea as a Registered National Landmark, an honour the Lost Sea shares with such unique geological regions as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and the Yosemite National Park in California.

The caverns, located in Sweetwater, hold a deep history in East Tennessee. From the tiny natural opening on the side of the mountain, the cave expands into a series of huge rooms. Nearly a mile from the entrance, in a room now known as “The Council Room,” a wide range of Indian artifacts including pottery, arrowheads, weapons, and jewellery have been found, testifying to the use of the cave by the Cherokees. The area’s first white settlers used the caves as an area to store food as the temperature is a constant 58 degrees. Like all men they were equally awed by the vast enormity of the splendor that makes up these creations of natural beauty.   From stalactites, and stalagmites, to the crystal clusters of anthodites these passageways are a true wonder to behold. A date of 1863 was found in one of these large rooms and was later carbon dated and proven to be authentic.  It is the oldest date found in these caves.  During the Civil War the Confederate Army used these caves for a mining operation and the date is believed to have come from the ash of a torch used by a confederate soldier who was there mining saltpetre, a natural material in great demand for the making of gunpowder. One war story dating from a diary of that period, tells the sorrowful story of how a young

The caverns, located in Sweetwater, hold a deep history in East Tennessee. From the tiny natural opening on the side of the mountain, the cave expands into a series of huge rooms. Nearly a mile from the entrance, in a room now known as “The Council Room,” a wide range of Indian artifacts including pottery, arrowheads, weapons, and jewellery have been found, testifying to the use of the cave by the Cherokees. The area’s first white settlers used the caves as an area to store food as the temperature is a constant 58 degrees. Like all men they were equally awed by the vast enormity of the splendor that makes up these creations of natural beauty.   From stalactites, and stalagmites, to the crystal clusters of anthodites these passageways are a true wonder to behold. A date of 1863 was found in one of these large rooms and was later carbon dated and proven to be authentic.  It is the oldest date found in these caves.  During the Civil War the Confederate Army used these caves for a mining operation and the date is believed to have come from the ash of a torch used by a confederate soldier who was there mining saltpetre, a natural material in great demand for the making of gunpowder. One war story dating from a diary of that period, tells the sorrowful story of how a young

The caverns, located in Sweetwater, hold a deep history in East Tennessee. From the tiny natural opening on the side of the mountain, the cave expands into a series of huge rooms. Nearly a mile from the entrance, in a room now known as “The Council Room,” a wide range of Indian artifacts including pottery, arrowheads, weapons, and jewellery have been found, testifying to the use of the cave by the Cherokees. The area’s first white settlers used the caves as an area to store food as the temperature is a constant 58 degrees. Like all men they were equally awed by the vast enormity of the splendor that makes up these creations of natural beauty.   From stalactites, and stalagmites, to the crystal clusters of anthodites these passageways are a true wonder to behold. A date of 1863 was found in one of these large rooms and was later carbon dated and proven to be authentic.  It is the oldest date found in these caves.  During the Civil War the Confederate Army used these caves for a mining operation and the date is believed to have come from the ash of a torch used by a confederate soldier who was there mining saltpetre, a natural material in great demand for the making of gunpowder. One war story dating from a diary of that period, tells the sorrowful story of how a young Union spy was ordered to infiltrate the Confederate lines in the hopes of destroying the Confederate’s saltpetre mine located within the caves.  He was successful in penetrating the well-guarded cave and in nearly blowing up the mine before being shot. According to the story, he was shot near the large gum tree at the entrance to the cave.  Such a tragic story for such a lovely place.

Today, visitors can take a boat tour of the underground lake. There are about 150,000 tourists visit The Lost Sea on an annual basis. Tour rates vary depending upon the number of people in the party as well as their ages. Glass-bottomed boats powered by electric motors carry visitors onto the lake, which is stocked with some of the largest Rainbow trout in North America. Fishing, incidentally, is not permitted. In times of extreme drought, the lake recedes significantly. According to experts, in 2007-2008, the water level in the lake receded 28 feet below its normal level. At that time, visitors were able to see a much larger cavern on the lake’s surface.

In addition to the caves and lake, guests can explore the Lost Sea Nature Trail, and visit the general store, ice cream parlour, gem mine and glassblower. A tour guide will walk the visitors down to the Sea and pointed out attractions along the way, such as leftovers from the cave’s post-atomic-apocalypse survival stockpile, and the moonshine still that was used when the cave operated as The Cavern Tavern in the 1940s.

Walkways were built in the cave when The Lost Sea opened as an attraction in 1965. Things do fall into The Lost Sea, occasionally people, mostly cameras and smart phones. When it falls in, it’s not coming out. Visitors might want to wipe all embarrassing photos from their phones before sailing on The Lost Sea in case their devices accidentally become archaeological artifacts for a future civilization.

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