Robin Camille Davis
  1. Home /
  2. Blog /
  3. The 1891-92 Diary of Alvin McDonald, Cave Explorer

The 1891-92 Diary of Alvin McDonald, Cave Explorer

July 13, 2010
Tags: history, outdoors, science, travel

When Meredith & I were in South Dakota on our Epic Road Trip, we camped in Custer State Park, near Mt. Rushmore. On a whim, we veered off the highway to visit Wind Cave, the fourth-longest cave in the world. And they're still exploring it! We went on a tour with an adorably enthusiastic park ranger who told us about the history of Wind Cave. She mentioned a certain Alvin McDonald, who, at 18 years of age, was one of the cave's first serious explorers. He was obsessed with the cave and would explore it with his friends for many hours at a time. He often took visitors down with him to earn a living, and he also sold bits of quartz and agate that he hacked out of the cave. He kept a diary, which has been digitized at the Wind Cave National Park website. It's fun to read through the journal of a true explorer — how they used string so they wouldn't get lost, how they measured their trips by how many candles they burned through, how they were discovering new rooms daily. Such a dude.

Excerpt from March 20th, 1892 — "Coliseum Route"

I had thought of leading the party to explore to the North East of the entrance but saw a passage leading to the West and I told the party to wait until I saw if it would pay to explore it.

I then went in the passage and found that it soon turned to the North West and kept getting larger until I concluded that it would pay to explore and then I returned to the remainder of the party. We had got gone a little farther than I had got went when George H. Stabler noticed a large hole in the roof. We were all looking up the hole & wondering how we could get up there when I suggested that we could follow that long rock and climb up from the other end of it. I did not know that we could get up there at the time that I made the suggestion, but only said so to break the monotony.

The rock was about 40 feet long and laid North West and South East, the South East end was toward us. ... G.A. Stabler & I explored to the North & F.L. McDonald stayed by our candles and string near the entrance of the room. After we had explored through it for about an hour we found the room to be of this shape, that is the shape of the illustration. George A. Stabler named the room the "Fair Grounds" and the name is very appropriate for the floor is unusually level and it contains nearly every kind of specimens that are found in the cave. We took special notice of the beautiful Argonite frost of which some parts of the room are elaborately decorated. We estimated the length of the room to be about 65 rods while the breadth of it will average about 5 rods making an area of over 2 acres. The average height is about 15 feet although in some places it is fifty. The Fair Grounds contains by a careful estimate 88481.25 cubic feet. ... We explored for a while longer and found a hole that leads to the third tier of chambers somewhere near the College. The upper end of it was near the north end of the Fair-grounds. We could drop a large stone down the hole and the effect was surprising. I would first strike the side about 20 feet below and then hit first one side and then the other until it got about 50 or 60 feet below. We could then hear it ring in the box-work and the next we heard was a thump on what we supposed was the floor of a room. By this time the sound was faint but we listened close and found that it rolled down an incline and completely out of hearing. In all my experience in the cave that was the first hole that I could find no bottom to by dropping a stone down. We had no rope with us and as we considered it dangerous to climb down without one we returned to the "Fair Grounds and then prepared to go the entrance of the cave. ... We returned to Vestibule and there prepared for a trip out to the entrance. I guess the majority of the party were tired for when I suggested that we would go and see the Sailors Delight they said that they would rather use their muscle to get to the entrance with. ... We were tired and hungry but never the less we were well satisfied with our trip. I will give an illustration of an inscription in the North West end of the Fair Grounds by George A. Stabler.

March 20th, 1892
J.D. McDonald  E.L. McDonald
A.F. McDonald   G.A. Stabler

You should definitely read some more of it. How lucky he was to be able to be a real cave explorer! I expressed my interest in spelunking to our adorably enthusiastic ranger guide, and she suggested joining a "grotto" (caving group) of the National Speleological Society. I haven't yet... But if there's one near me in Illinois in the fall, I'm so down.