Jerry Summers: Leo Lambert – What A Spelunker!


Having lived in the Chattanooga area close to 75 years and knowing of the commercially successful and famous Ruby Falls, and to a limited extent its original companion cave Lookout Cave, lesser-known facts have been discovered recently by me.

Leo Lambert (1895-1950) was a chemist by trade but his main passion was discovering and exploring the vast network of limestone caverns existing underneath us in our area as part of the Cumberland Plateau. 

Unfortunately, his quadruple adventures into Lookout Cave, Ruby Falls, Nickajack Cave and Raccoon Mountain Caverns came along during the era of the Great Depression and he was deprived of the opportunity to reap great financial wealth from his expertise and knowledge about the natural abysses in Southeast Tennessee.

In addition to his explorations on Lookout Mountain and Nickajack Cave in Marion County, Tn., Lambert is often credited with discovery and development of what is now known as the Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground in 1929. 

Allegedly, when farmers noticed that a stream of cool air during hot summer months was pouring from a crack at the bottom of the mountain, they called upon Lambert to investigate and determine the source.

Suspecting that there was some type of opening or cavern underneath, he enlarged the small cracks and discovered several hundred feet of passages near the highway.

Lambert opened the cavern as a tourist attraction in 1931 by developing a series of trails and installing electric lights before introducing it to the public as Tennessee Caverns on June 28.

After being further explored, it was discovered that the caves allegedly run approximately 5.5 miles underground and the cool air breeze that led to its discovery remains at a constant temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. 

Raccoon Mountain Caverns was alleged to have been located on the site of a now non-existent Grand Hotel in what is now known as the Tiftonia area off of U.S. Highway 41 (Dixie Highway).  Other sources claim that there never was a Grand Hotel. With the building of I-24 the old road is less traveled and what has also been claimed that the cave was used as a farm for a restaurant over the years has also been disputed. The current attraction has become less famous than the nationally recognized and advertised Ruby Falls.

The history of those caverns is filled with interesting facts, rumors and information that add to the folklore history of Leo Lambert, who had a short 54-year life span.

Further discoveries led to larger caverns.  Various names have been added to the different natural rock structures.

The original tour of the caverns was named after Leo Lambert and circled what was eventually thought to be the largest room, the Crystal Palace Room.

Approximately 20 years after it was opened, and after the death of Lambert the managers for the new owners broke through another natural barrier just off of the Crystal Palace Room.  Squeezing through a small opening they crawled through a distance of approximately 20 feet and found a passage opening into another large room.

Over the years the name of the cave was changed from Tennessee Caverns to Crystal City Caves to Crystal Caverns and eventually to Raccoon Mountain Caverns in 1978 and today is “home to a beautiful campground, featuring full-service RV sites, water and electric sites, primitive tent sites and cabins.”

Around 1964, the Mt. Aetna Skyride (tramway) was erected at a cost of around $750,000 that would provide a 2,800-foot ride to the top of Mt. Aetna, a part of Raccoon Mountain.

Unfortunately, the tramway no longer exists but its towers remain as well as the cable car that formerly was used to transport passengers to enjoy the spectacular views.  Liability Insurance premiums in the 1980’s became prohibitive and the skyride was abandoned in 1984 although a hiking trail to the top of the mountain still exists.  A YouTube video dated October 12, 2018 titled “Abandoned Mount Aetna Skyride,” depicts the pathway and terrain to the summit which was formerly a popular four-wheeler and mountain bike road under the now abandoned tram route. 

It has also been confirmed that the caves presently extend almost six miles under the mountains but are not open to the public.

Other projects that were started but have since been discounted were the Alpine Slide and Grand Prix racetrack course.

A series of at least eight tours of the cavern at various costs and length of time ranging from 1.0-1.5 hours to an overnight stay in the Echo Room Expedition have previously been available but have been placed on hold due to the COVID epidemic. 

A series of online favorable reviews present a picture of a less hectic and less commercially advertised locale that should possibly be included on a trip to the other similar tourist attractions in the Chattanooga area. 

Another benefit of a trip to Lee Lambert’s fourth development in our area (Lookout Cave, Ruby Falls, and Nickajack Cave are the others) is that it contains a high level of active speleothem growth (from dripping water), fossils and resident wildlife.

The cave is home to a unique spider species referred to as the Crystal Caverns Cave Spider that was discovered in 1938, officially identified in 1984 and allegedly is known to exist only within Raccoon Mountain Caverns.  Several salamander (amphibian lizard-like appearance) species also are found.

Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground is located at 319 West Hills Drive, Chattanooga, Tennessee 37419 (423) 821-9403, campground@raccoonmountain.com and caverns@raccoonmountain.com are websites that can provide additional information.

Surviving family member Jeanne Whisler Crawford contradicts some of the reported facts about her grandfather’s discoveries, but he was an extraordinary individual.  As the granddaughter of Leo and Ruby Lambert she is matriarch of the historical souvenir shop, Mountain Memories on Scenic Highway on Lookout Mountain, where the equally world famous Incline Railway crosses under the highway on its route to the top of the mountain.

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Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers’ articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

 



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