The seventh oldest national park in the system, Wind Cave National Park was the first to protect a cave.
On a trip with two of our grandsons, we recently visited Wind Cave. Since this was 2021 and there were still restrictions on tour numbers in the cave and no reservations, we arrived at the visitor center well before opening. There was already a line formed all the way down the parking lot. Fortunately we got the tour we wanted and the time we wanted.
Wind Cave has quite an interesting history. Even though the native people as well as settlers who arrived later had knowledge of the cave’s entrance, there is no evidence of anyone entering the cave until 1881.
In Lakota culture, history is passed down through the spoken word. Lakota stories speak of a hole in the Black Hills that blows air. This is a sacred place for their people. Sitting Bull’s nephew is quoted as saying that “Wind Cave in the Black Hills was the cave from which Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery, sent the buffalo out into their hunting grounds.” There are many different versions of the Emergence Story. One version was told by Wilmer Mesteth, a tribal historian and spiritual leader, to Sina Bear Eagle who retells it.
It is this hole that Tom and Jesse Bingham claimed to have discovered in 1881. They reportedly heard the sound of wind coming from the cave entrance, which upon examination was strong enough to blow Tom’s hat off his head. When they returned later the wind had changed direction and was sucking the air inside.
The scientific explanation for this phenomenon is barometric airflow. Being so large with a lot of space, Wind Cave has an internal air pressure system. That system is constantly working to equalize to the pressure on the surface. So when the air pressure is high on the surface air will be forced into the cave to create a high pressure system in the cave. Conversely, when there is a low pressure system on the surface, the high pressure in the cave forces air out. This is referred to as “cave breathing.”
In 1881, Charlie Crary squeezed through the small Natural Entrance and became Wind Cave’s first known explorer. Using candles for light and string to mark their route, he and friends were probably the first people to see the rare cave formation known as boxwork. Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. The fins intersect one another at various angles, forming “boxes” on cave surfaces.
The chief obstacle to exploration of Wind Cave was the small opening. So the Binghams created a larger opening adjacent to the original and built a cabin over both openings.
The question of ownership of the cave and surrounding area was contentious and resulted in a number of court battles. In 1889 the mineral rights to the cave were sold to the South Dakota Mining Company and J.D. McDonald was hired to manage the claim and he arrived with two of his sons, Elmer and Alvin, and his daughter, Mary. The McDonalds didn’t find gold but Alvin fell in love with the cave and was the first true explorer of Wind Cave. He systematically researched and explored the cave and kept an extensive journal. When the South Dakota Mining Company stopped paying the McDonalds, they filed a homestead claim on the land. They found that people were interested in the cave and in 1890, the first cave tours were conducted.
Assuming the land was theirs, in 1892 the McDonalds sold an interest in the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company to John Stabler. His two sons and a daughter helped lead tours and explore the cave, as well as selling cave formations and minerals. They promoted the cave and invited famous people to visit. The Stablers built a hotel near the entrance to the cave. Some of the advertising stunts were a bit questionable.
The mining company wasn’t willing to let go of the property and took McDonald to court. With that still unsettled, in 1896 the partners were disagreeing and Stabler formed the Black Hills Wind Cave Company in an effort to get the cave for himself. By 1897, McDonalds and Stablers also ended up in court.
Finally, in 1899, the long drawn out South Dakota Mining Co. vs. Jesse D. McDonald case was decided. The homestead entry of McDonald was cancelled but it was also determined that the ground was not mineral and could not be claimed as such. It was recommended that the cave be reserved by the government as a public resort. Both South Dakota Mining Co. and McDonald lost the case. Both appealed but the decision was upheld.
The land was withdrawn from settlement January 18,1900, and on September 12,1902, Captain Seth Bullock became the supervisor of the Wind Cave. Second generation McDonalds and Stablers worked as guides and Stablers were granted a hotel concession.
On January 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation making Wind Cave a National Park.
Portions of Wind Cave are over 300 million years old, making it one of the oldest in the world. It is also large with 149 miles of known cave (as of 2019). The boxwork in Wind Cave is rare and found in few other caves. The creation of the boxwork was a slow process.
Millions of years ago, a warm shallow sea caused limestone with infusions of gypsum to be formed. The resulting rock is known as Madison Limestone or Pahasapa (Black Hills) Limestone. Over time pressure fractured the both limestone and gypsum. Gypsum squeezed into the cracks, crystallized, and later was converted to calcite. Over time, as slow moving water caused the creation of Wind Cave’s maze-like pattern limestone was dissolved, revealing the previously deposited crack fillings – the exposed crystal fins called boxwork.
Cave popcorn and frostwork are also present in Wind Cave but dripstone deposits, such as stalactites and stalagmites, are rare due to the dry climate and the overlaying rock.
Prior to the 1800’s America’s bison population is estimated to have been in the tens of millions. By 1880, the population decreased into the hundreds, private herd owners bred bison and cattle together and conservation efforts were begun to prevent extinction. In 1912 the Wind Cave National Game Preserve was created to restore the bison population there.
The bison herd at Wind Cave is one of the purest genetic herds in the world. There is no evidence of cattle introgression. The park manages a bison population of between 350-500 which are descendants of 14 bison reintroduced to the park in 1913 from the New York Zoological Society.
A relatively small national park (28,295 acres), Wind Cave combines an unusual ecosystem of mixed-grass prairie of the Great Plains and the ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills above the underground labyrinth for which the park is named.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm