Marvel Cave is the original attraction on the Silver Dollar City property, and the historical activities related to this cave are the basis of the park’s overarching theme and the theme of a number of individual rides and things within the park. The history of Marvel Cave is the story of the origins of Silver Dollar City.
The history of Marvel Cave stretches back into the 1500′s and beyond when various Indian tribes, most notably the Osage, inhabited the area and acknowledged the cave. Local lore says that the Indians called the cave “Devil’s Den” due to the occasional sounds that echoed from its mouth. It has been said that sometime in the mid 1500′s Spanish Explorers went into the cave searching for the Fountain of Youth or other treasures, but I’m not aware of any actual evidence to back that up. Due to the cave’s dangerous sunken entrance it seems that no notable exploration was made into the cave until 1869 when Henry T. Blow led the first official expedition in search of minable ores. They didn’t find any useful ore, but they did find large quantities of bat guano and what they thought was marble. It’s thought that since the explorers only had lamp light to see with, they mistook the guano-covered rocks for marble slabs. The cave soon became known as Marble Cave.
In 1882 the Marble Cave Mining Company began attempts to mine the supposed marble out of the cave. After about four and half years of trying and finding no marble, the company folded. While the company was operating a mining town called Marmaros sprung up around the operation, named after the Greek word for marble. Silver Dollar City was actually created to commemorate this town, albeit in a rather idealized manner. When the company gave up the operation, Marmaros became a ghost town.
In 1889 the cave was bought by William Henry Lynch, a Canadian entrepreneur who had an interest in opening the cave as an attraction. For reasons that are somewhat muddled in the fog of history, Lynch’s purchase of the cave and business intentions set off a local band of vigilantes known as the Baldknobbers. The group swept in one night and burned the entire town to the ground. Fire-in-the-Hole, one of Silver Dollar City’s first rides, is themed to the story of the Baldknobber attack. Lynch continued on with his plans and brought in the famous artist and scientist S. Fred Prince to survey the cave. Prince spent most of two years living in the cave, and built his own living areas and fireplace so he could stay down there for months at a time. The cave was first opened as an attraction in 1894. Prince continued to work for Lynch as a guide and explorer until Lynch’s death in 1927. Around this time the cave finally became known as Marvel Cave.
Hugo Herschend, a former vacuum cleaner salesman from Chicago, acquired the cave in 1950 on a 99-year lease from the Lynch sisters. Hugo Herschend passed away in 1955, but his wife Mary took over the cave operations and set forth a serious of grand visionary expansions. Her two sons, Jack and Peter, helped construct concrete paths and stairs within the cave, and a tower that allowed guests to easily climb down the sinkhole to the bottom of the Grand Cathedral room. They also built a funicular inclined railway system to haul guests out of the cave, removing the dread of climbing back up all of those stairs in the summer heat. This train is especially notable for having a fairly sharp curve for such a cable pulled mechanism. The Army Corps. of Engineers told the Herschends it couldn’t be done, but they went ahead and built it anyway and it has been operating for over 50 years now.
With all these improvements in place and Branson tourism surging, Marvel cave began to grow in popularity faster than tours could be provided. Mary Herschend expanded the cave attraction by building the afore-mentioned idealized recreation of the town of Marmaros and began giving out change in Silver Dollars as a marketing ploy. Silver Dollar City was born and has never stopped growing.
The cave attraction is still operating – making it the oldest continually operating cave attraction in the United States. Due to it’s somewhat restricted capacity it isn’t heavily advertised, so it can be easy to miss for novice visitors to the park. The entrance is located within the Hospitality House, which is the building all guests pass through just before reaching the main square. You’ll have to crawl underneath a cutout representing the most difficult passage of the journey in order to reach the waiting area. Check the Silver Dollar City Times (the park’s brochure and maps handed out at the entrance) for the tour schedule.
Upon passing the cut-out check to get into the tour waiting area, you’ll meet your tour guide and go over the cave rules, regulations, and guidelines. The normal tours are approximately 1 hour long and include about 600 stairs that will take you down hundreds of feet through the sunken cave entrance and down to the depths of the gargantuan cathedral room. Your guides will inform you that the cathedral room is so large that they have flown 5 hot air balloons inside of it at once.
Regular tours will take you past a number of interesting cave formations and even an underground water fall. At one point in the tour your host will turn off all the lights and allow you to experience absolute darkness. You’ll also see a replica of Harold Bell Wright’s cabin, which he once stayed in at times for artistic respite.
Lantern light tours are also now available for a small upcharge of $10 per person, with very limited tour capacities. You can reserve a space online at this link. The Lantern light tours follow a fairly new trail within the cave that includes the Mammoth room which can’t be viewed during the regular tours.
For more official information, check out the Marvel Cave page on the official site.
Check out Marvel Cave’s Wikipedia page for more in-depth information.