Since it formed millions of years ago, this cave system has been a sacred burial ground, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and the center of an amusement park.
A prehistoric network of caves lies underneath Childersburg, Alabama. Originally known as Kymulga Cave, now called DeSoto Caverns, the impressive series of caves has played important roles in the history of local Indigenous cultures as well as Euro-American colonialism.
The history of this cave system dates back to another era in Earth’s history. It sits within a bed of limestone that was deposited nearly 500 million years ago. The caverns themselves, which consist of a large central room and a number of smaller branching tunnels, formed about three million years ago.
Humans have been exploring these caves for thousands of years. A 2,000-year-old burial site was uncovered in the caves in 1965. It has been attributed to the early Native American Copena culture. The burial contained the skeletons of four adults and one child. One of the jawbones collected at the site points towards a man that could have been over seven feet tall. The remains were later re-buried in an undisclosed part of the cave.
In the 16th century colonial era, the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto arrived and began the European recorded history of what is now the state of Alabama. In 1796, Benjamin Hawkins, the General Superintendent of Indian Affairs, reported to George Washington about the wonder of the caverns, making it the first officially recorded cave in the United States.
After the United States made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in the early 1920s, underground bars sprang up across the country—including a literal underground speakeasy in Childersburg. Frequent shootings and fights led to a reputation and a new nickname for the caverns: the Bloody Bucket. Eventually, the speakeasy was shut down by federal agents.
In the decades that followed, the cave system became popular with amateur explorers and tourists. Stairs and electric lights were added to make it easier to navigate. In 1975, the property owners gave the cave system a new name, DeSoto Caverns. Today, the cave and its surrounding area are home to a number of attractions that have taken it from geological wonder to amusement park. One notable attraction is the Destiny Express, a miniature train that visitors can ride around the park. The gemstone pan, which lets participants pan for their own gold and other gemstones is also a big hit. The park also has its Cave box crawl, a 200-foot mock cave to navigate and explore like a real expeditionary. The caverns also feature an in-cave light show, alongside cave tours and exhibits.
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