By "One Who was There
[Written expressly for the Northern Indianian] by Reub Williams
Adventure in Nickajack Cave
During the autumn of 1863, while the Federal army, under the command of Maj. Gen. Rosecrans lay encamped near Chattanooga, with its flanks extending to the right and left upon the line of the Tennessee river, the facts which lead to the narration of the following adventure occurred, which, from its very nature was attended with as thrilling effect as can well be conceived. The scene of our narrative is laid within the windings of the great Nickajack Cave, which is situated in such a manner that a person can stand upon the soil of three States when upon the mountain above it-Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. The entrance is in the last mentioned state, near the little railway station of Shell Mound.
The entrance and the rocky face of the mountain surrounding it, is visible for miles around, which, with the stream emerging from its base, and the innumerable small cascades which leap forth from the almost perpendicular face of the rock, give to the eye of the visitor a wild and picturesque attraction.
The entrance to the cave is a ragged opening among the rocks of perhaps sixty feet in length and varying from ten to fifty feet in height, and presents as rude and uninviting an aspect as perhaps any other point of the same magnitude in the world. At the base of the entrance a stream of considerable volume emerges.
This cavern, now supposed to excel the far-famed Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, is of very great extent. Its exploration has been attempted a number of times by various expeditions. Many of the parties have reached what was, to all appearances, the terminus, but subsequent explorations has succeeded in traversing some of its many passages for miles, without any apparent success in finding how far it reached into the bowels of the mother earth. Indeed the very number of its windings and intricate ways, with the innumerable obstacles thrown in the way of the explorer, precludes the idea that the end has or ever will be reached. It was a beautiful morning early in the month of October, that our adventurers set forth on their visit to the cave, determined to shake off the ernui (?) consequent upon the monotonous routine of duties while in camp. Our party consisted of but two persons, one of whom, Lieut. Col. Baker, late of the 74th Indiana Regiment and a resident of Goshen, Ind., was killed during the famous Atlanta campaign while in command of his regiment in front of the enemy's works. Captain Andy S. Milice was the second member of the party, a gentleman well known to all of our citizens as a gallant soldier during the late rebellion.
Provided with some provisions, a lantern, and some matches, they commenced their explorations. Proceeding nearly a mile with comparative ease they were frequently compelled to halt and view the wonderful construction of this great curiosity. Sometimes passing through long corridors with lofty arched ceiling, and again passing through mere crevices in the rocks barely capable of admitting the body of a man, they would suddenly emerge into spacious halls and chambers, some of them hundreds of feet in extent, with the roof scarcely discernable at so great a distance overhead. Here they found fountains spurting up their pelucid waters, and natural formations of granite so shaped as to give them the forms of men and objects, with nearly all the clearly defined distinctness of the professional artist. While massive stalactites adorned the walls and roof of these subterranean palaces; while through each ran the stream of which we have made mention as emerging from its mouth. The light carried by our adventurers being just sufficient to bring out in the outlines of objects quite near them only, the remote corners seemed surrounded by a weird, ghost-like drapery, which gave to the eye of the beholder new and startling effects.
As they cautiously proceeded along the banks of the stream, taking it as their guide, they met a soldier who was returning from a visit to the interior, in a boat which he had found in the stream. Our friends, quickly appreciating the novelty of taking a boat ride underground, soon made an exchange with the soldier, whereby they become the proprietors of the frail vessel, and transferring themselves to it with their little baggage, continued their course.
In many places they found the stream of great depth and breadth and again so shallow and narrow as to barely allow the passage of the boat.
In this manner they continued their journey for a considerable distance, probably a mile or more, when arriving at a point of especial interest, they disembarked for the purpose of getting a closer view. Remaining some time up on shore they at length commenced their embarkataion for their return as they were fully aware that they had passed hours in the cavern and that it was well that they should commence their homeward journey.
Col. Baker had just stepped into the boat and taken the oar when Capt. Milice in attempting to gain the boat caused it to push from the shore losing his footing and precipitated himself and lantern into the water. The light was of course at once extinguished and now began the horrors of their situation.
Only those who have experienced intense darkness of these caverns can imagine with what feelings our adventurers found themselves surrounded by a worse than Egyptian darkness. However their case was not yet desperate; if the lantern could be regained they being in possession of matches could easily relight it and pursue their homeward journey.
A long and dilligent search was at length rewarded by finding the object of their solicitude. With great joy at the prospect of a speedy deliverance the matches were produced. Their joy was soon dampened by the fact that the matches proved worthless, refusing to ignite. Now ensued a moment of horror. The idea which seemed so nearly possible, that they were without hope of succor and that they could but die a long lingering death with no witnesses but those damp dripping walls of granite. That they should never see home or kindred, nor even be permitted to see again the dear sunlight, chilled the hearts which had never recoiled from danger on the field of battle.
They knew full well that it was many miles to the entrance that there was innumerable passages which would lead them astray, that there was frightful chasms, hundreds of feet in depth and again the dangers of the stream, which in many places would float a monitor, and what was still worse the whole enshrouded in such Cimmerian darkness as to render a single step fraught with much consequence.
In this dilema our friends held a consultation and acertaining that ten matches still remained they used great caution to secure their ignition. Smooth dry surfaces were found and the attempt again renewed. But with no better results than before, with the failure of each match their chances of life decreased. All gone but two; with what intense anxiety did they repeat the attempt, another failure. But one is left. Upon this slender chance hangs the existence of two brave men. Starvation and death stare them fully in the face; a horrible death indeed. Not a word is uttered, not even a breath disturbs the intense stillness, when the attempt is resumed with the last match. Carefully it is drawn over the smooth surface, slowly a little, very little gleam of light appears from the match. It flickers for a moment as if it little knew or cared for the tenderness with which it is nursed. But at length as if inspired with a new resolve, it leaps forth into a flame. The lamp is relighted and our adventurers are saved.
With hearts too full of thanksgiving for utterance they pursued their journey to the entrance, carefully watching that no ill should again befall their lamp.
And now though the sole survivor has passed through dangers innumerable there have been none with which he looks back upon with more thanfulness than when saved by the last match.
The Northern Indianian Thursday April 12, 1866
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