Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave has been considered sacred by Native Americans for centuries. It wasn’t until 1881, however, that the cave was discovered by Europeans. Two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham, passing through the region heard a loud whistling noise. Upon investigation, the sound led them to a small hole in the ground, from which a strong gust of wind was creating the sound that drew them to the spot. This small hole is the only natural entrance to the cave that has ever been found.
After the cave’s discovery, several mining claims were established in the area. J. D. McDonald managed one of those claims for the South Dakota Mining Company. Mining operations at Wind Cave turned out to be an unsuccessful venture, but McDonald and his family discovered that they could make money by giving cave tours and selling cave formations.
In 1891, the McDonalds teamed up with John Stabler and formed the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. The company widened the entrance to the cave, built a wooden staircase, erected a hotel near the cave entrance, and started offering stage coach rides to the cave from Hot Springs.
In 1893, there were stirrings of trouble between the Stabler and McDonald families. J. D. and Alvin McDonald headed off to an exposition in Chicago to promote the cave. Alvin got typhoid fever on the trip and died shortly thereafter. After his death, arguments broke out between the families about how profits were being split and the fight ended up in court.
After years of courtroom battles, the Department of the Interior decided that since there was no mining and no homestead activity involved, neither party held any ownership in the cave and in 1901 withdrew the property from availability as a homestead. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt, a frequent visitor and supporter of conservation, signed a bill creating Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave became the eighth National Park in the federal park system and was the first to be set aside to preserve a cave. The park is located just 11 miles north of Hot Springs on U.S. 385 and today presents two faces to the visitor.
On the surface, Wind Cave, at 28,295 acres, boasts over 30 miles of hiking trails and the mixed grass prairie ecosystem supports abundant wildlife, including bison, mule deer, whitetail deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn, wild turkeys, and elk. The topography of the park is vastly different from that of the Northern Hills. Lower elevation and eroded round hills provide scenic viewing as far as the human eye can see. It is a place where east meets west, the Great Plains prairie meets the ponderosa pine forest. It’s a wonderful place to watch the not infrequent summer thunderstorms cross the plains.
Below the surface, under just one square mile of the park, lies 131 miles of explored cave passages. Wind Cave is the fourth longest cave in the world. It may move up in the standings, however, as at this point in time, it is estimated that as little as 10 percent of the cave has been explored and mapped.
Wind Cave is famous for its boxwork, an unusual type of speleothem (cave formation). Most cave formations are created when dripping or seeping water deposits calcium on the cave walls and ceilings, forming the stalactites (which hang from the ceiling like icicles) and stalagmites (built up from the floor) that most visitors expect to see in a cave.
Since Wind Cave is relatively dry, the formations in the cave are more subtle. Boxwork is made of thin slices of calcite that project from the cave walls and intersect with each other in a honeycomb-like fashion. The pattern looks like a collection of diamond and rectangular boxes protruding from the walls and ceilings. It is suspected that boxwork formation results from the uniform seepage of water, literally through the pores of the rock, instead of from larger cracks and crevices.
Other common formations found in the cave include popcorn (knobby deposits of calcite) and frostwork (thin needles of calcite crystals in patterns that resemble a three-dimensional version of frost on a window).
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition