Note: Florida Caverns State Park remains closed for now while employees work to clean up widespread debris and damage from Hurricane Michael. As recovery work continues, I thought you might enjoy some stories from the history of this remarkable Florida landmark.

A Visit to Old Indian Cave in 1842

by Dale Cox

Billy Bailey (L) and Dale Cox (R) examine a large room in Old Indian Cave.

Marianna – Old Indian Cave – once called the Natural Bridge Cave – is a remarkable historical and geological landmark at Florida Caverns State Park.

This was the cave that Dr. J.C. Patterson of Malone dreamed of turning into an attraction like Luray Caverns in Virginia. He purchased 494 acres including it 1935 and led a civic drive that culminated with the creation of today’s state park.

Dr. Patterson, however, was just one in a long line of noteworthy individuals who visited the cave. Red Stick Creek and Seminole families hid in its chambers when Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army passed by in 1818. The First Seminole War was then underway and Jackson was on his way from Fort Gadsden on the Apalachicola River to attack Spanish-held Pensacola.

In the years that followed, early settlers of Jackson County found the cave and it became one of their favorite picnic spots. This brought the editor of the Tallahassee Sentinel for a visit in 1842:

This large chamber in Old Indian Cave is probably one of of the ones described in the 1842 account.

A few weeks since, in company with some eight or ten ladies and gentlemen, we explored one of the largest and most interesting caves yet discovered in Florida. It is situated some four miles from Marianna, near the east bank of the Chipola River, and in the vicinity of Dr. Cheeseborough’s plantation. Its entrance is on the side of a small hill, the mouth sufficiently large to admit two persons at a time in a standing position. After furnishing ourselves with lighted candles we commenced our “exploring expedition.” A few steps led us into a large subterranean hall, of very irregular and curious structure. Its floor was quite uneven; and its roof thickly studded with glittering stalactites, formed a splended arch, apparently supported by finely chiseled pillars of solid rock. [1]

The editor’s description of the cave applies in large part today. The entrances – there are several – are in an isolated hill formed by a limestone outcrop just east of the Chipola River. The formations he saw no longer exist for the most part as visitors to the cave broke and carried them away over the century between his visit and the creation of the state park. New ones are slowly forming but it will take hundreds upon hundreds of years for them to grow back to the splendor of those seen in 1842.

The account continues:

Carvings left by visitors of previous generations can be found throughout the cave. Some date from the 1800s.

After proceeding some distance, clambering over rocks, jumping ravines, now ascending land, anon descending, we at length reached a fine, cool spring, which gushed forth from a cleft in a large rock situated in a remote corner of the first apartment. – After refreshing ourselves at this beautiful fountain, we pursued our uneven course, into the next apartment, which presented much the appearance of the first. Having by this time become somewhat fatigued – the atmosphere being rather oppressive – we retraced our steps, and once more emerged into the light of day without meeting with any accident. We think the position of the cave we explored was about 150 yards in length and ranging, in height from 6 to 16 feet. It is said to contain other apartments. [2]

In an interesting note, the newspaper editor wrote that “during the winter season large numbers of bats make it their abode.” Hundreds of bats – some of them from extremely rare species – still roost in the cave today. It is closed to public visitation for that reason. The state preserves it and many other caves in the park as a sanctuary. The main tour cave with its beautiful formations, of course, is open to the public when the park is in operation. [3]

Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park emerges from tight space in Old Indian Cave.

The editor also noted that Old Indian Cave was a stopping point for African-American slaves trying to escape via the “Underground Railroad” – which in this case was actually underground! “Runaway negroes also make it a hiding place,” he wrote, confirming that the cave was one of at least two within today’s state park boundary thought to have been used by enslaved humans as they tried to escape bondage in the area. Legend also holds that local civilians hid in the cave to escape injury during the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864. [4]

The account further mentions the nearby presence of “what is called the Natural Bridge – a strip of land which extends entirely over the Chipola, under which the water passes without the slightest noise or difficulty.” [5]

The Natural Bridge is still there as well, adjacent to the launch on the Chipola River. Like the rest of the park, its tree cover sustained heavy damage during Hurricane Michael but the geological formation survives.

Please click here to learn more about Florida Caverns State Park.

If you would like to see more of Old Indian Cave, please enjoy this free video that Two Egg TV produced 2 years ago when we received special permission to enter:

[1] “Curiosities of Florida” as republished by The News, St. Augustine, Florida, July 2, 1842, Page 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.; Dale Cox, The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition, Old Kitchen Books, 2001.

[5] “Curiosities of Florida.”