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Niagara Cave

Fri, Jun 15th, 2001
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Monday, June 11, 2001

Our guide flips a switch and plunges us into a darkness so black no eyes can see. It is cold down here over 200 feet below the surface. The roar of a 60-foot waterfall drowns all other sounds. Even those of us who have never been afraid of the dark are frightened now, but it's the same kind of fear that delights a child when he knows there is no real danger. Our guide flips a switch and we can see again.

Mark and Jennifer Bishop, owners of Niagara Cave near Harmony, have provided the Fillmore County Water Planning Committee with a courtesy tour of the cave. Our guide is their 12-year-old son, Ryan.

All of us are familiar with the karst topography in Fillmore County and its role in making our water resources vulnerable to contamination. We know that our fractured limestone bedrock leads to unpredictable connections between water sources through the formation of sinkholes, stream sinks, blind valleys, underground rivers, springs and caves. Now we are able to see firsthand some of the most spectacular effects of karst.

In contrast to most other caves, Niagara extends vertically through three rock formations and has canyons and gorges with ceilings more than 100 feet high. It has an underground river that travels horizontally along the relatively impermeable Maquoketa and Dubuque Formations until it reaches the Galena Group where it becomes a 60-foot waterfall cascading down vertical fractures to the floor of the cave.

Before arriving at the waterfall, we descended hundreds of steps, walked through large rooms and rounded curve after curve in bewildering passageways. It feels as though we are walking through the veins, arteries and organs befitting only the massive innards of Great Mother Earth herself.

We see stalactites, both delicate and massive, still forming drop by slow drop. We enter a crystal wedding chapel that has seen over 300 weddings. We holler into an echo chamber and look into a wishing well. We examine fossils of creatures that lived during the Paleozoic Era over 400 million years ago when shallow seas covered most of Minnesota. The seas provided basins for the deposition of minerals and shells of marine organisms that became the sedimentary rocks through which we are now passing. We see fossils of trilobites, which have been extinct for 400 million years; the edge view of a sunflower sponge coral that looks like a segmented worm; and cephalopods, which are ancient mollusks.

When we arrive at the site of an old sinkhole, we learn about the people from the Kennedy farm who went looking for three lost pigs and found them still alive at the bottom of the sinkhole where they also found an entrance to this cave. Exploration and development of Niagara Cave began in 1924 by Joe Flynn, Leo TeKippe, and Al Cremer. It was opened to the public in 1934.

Finally, we must climb the many stairs we walked down earlier and return to the world, as we usually know it. Compared to the steady 45-degree temperature below, it feels almost hot up here at the entrance to the cave, which is reached through the gift shop. The souvenirs, books and artifacts in the gift shop hold increased interest for us now. Mark, who has come to meet us from the family's attached house, tells us that 1/3-mile of additional passages and rooms exist beyond what is open to the public and another entire cave may exist below the waterfall. Exploration is difficult due to passageways where the water level comes right up to the ceiling.

The Bishop family purchased Niagara Cave in 1995. Every family member participates in the business. Jennifer, who is also a RN at Mayo Clinic, helps with the giftshop, tours and bookkeeping. Eric, their oldest son, helps Mark with management. Ryan, their 12-year-old son who gave us the tour, is anxious to begin being an official tour guide in a couple of years. He's always asking to go dig in the cave and loves to explore the new passages. And 10 year old Aaron sells fossils and rocks and wants to put up a hotdog stand. GORP, an outdoor recreational group, places Niagara Cave in the top 10 best underground places to visit in the country! For more information, go to, or call 1-800-837-6606.

By Nancy Overcott

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