Stalactites are the stars in the Dream River cavern at Cave of the Mounds.
Where history and nature meet
Cave of the Mounds: The story of a Wisconsin treasure.
Story by Kimberly Anderson and photos courtesy Cave of the Mounds
"Fire in the hole," the contractor yelled as he set off the explosives. It was 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1939.
Rubble flew. Dust filled the air. Everything settled in a sudden calm. After the routine blast, an unexpected opening in the rock appeared along the limestone quarry wall on Brigham Farm in Blue Mounds. Light had entered the hollows for the first time in an era, revealing a cavern hundreds of feet long. The workers knew this small southwestern Wisconsin town would never be the same.
Years earlier, Ebenezer Brigham may have had the same thought about his boomtown. Since 1828, as the first European settler to the area, Brigham had been servicing lead miners' needs for provisions and restful relaxation along the Old Military Road on the southern slope of the East Mound in what is now Dane County.
A natural dividing ridge extended from near Madison to the Mississippi River and passed close by Brigham's house, serving as the first wagon road maintained in the state. Men also traveled from afar, along Bluemound Road — now State Highway 18 — from the "big lake" in the east to stake their claim to the bountiful lead deposits in the beautiful, rugged landscape of southwest Wisconsin.
Brigham served as a colonel in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and later went on to serve as a delegate to Wisconsin's inaugural State Legislature. He was an avid participant on the committee that decided the location of the Wisconsin State Capitol — a hill between two lakes where he had camped in 1826 following his traverse to the area from Massachusetts.
After his death in 1861, Brigham, who had no children of his own, willed his land holdings — practically the entire East Mound — to his nephew Charles, a promising student of dairy agriculture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Among the oaks, prairies, rolling hills and fertile pastures, Brigham Farm was born.
Although Ebenezer had no idea a geologic wonder lay beneath his feet, Charles, his wife Anna, and their children Charles, Jr. and Elizabeth would soon become enveloped in the life–changing potential of the noteworthy discovery.
The quarry had long provided rock for local road projects and had been studied by geology students for its high–quality Wisconsin fossils. It was clear that the business of the cave as an attraction would have a momentous impact on tourism in the area. The Brigham family believed from the very beginning that the cave needed protection and preservation as a unique example of natural history, geology and science. They also understood that developing the cave for visitor access and enjoyment would be a necessary and significant endeavor.
Cave improvement for visitor admittance was undertaken by two local residents, Carl Brechler and Fred Hanneman, and would prove a tantalizing process, taking almost two decades to fully complete. The initial wooden stairs and walkways sufficed for a time, but soon became slippery in the naturally damp underground environment. Paved stairs, platforms and walkways replaced these as time progressed. New passageways were constructed via a man–made tunnel in an effort to protect and preserve the fragile East Cave and its beautiful, intricate formations. Openings that peered into the cave from the tunnel offered spectators magnificent views without compromising the delicate nature of what became known as the Beauty Rooms and the Dream River.
After much preparation, on Memorial Day weekend, 1940, Cave of the Mounds was opened to the public, bringing thousands of people from all over the world to see the geologic treasure that was accidentally unearthed the previous summer. Tourists marveled at the cave and its whimsical formations: soda straw stalactites, statuesque stalagmites, a painted waterfall, cave bacon, flowstone, cave pearls and much more. The first 27 weeks alone saw 59,000 visitors!
Lighting up the cave's mysterious world of total darkness would also prove no simple task. The initial modest system of cords and lights would later be replaced with splendid dramatic lighting specially developed by Gilbert Hemsley, Jr., professor of lighting design at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and famed Broadway theatrical lighting designer. The impressive system connected a series of light boxes and dimmer switches that were placed to accentuate the most spectacular formations of the cave. Over time, this system enhanced and embellished the nature of the guided tour by creating a "narrative of light" that tour guides would use as they provided direction and interpretation to visitors throughout the cave.
A tour of Cave of the Mounds has become one of Wisconsin's most unique and authentic experiences. The years since its discovery have shown visitors new ways to experience the natural wonder, including a variety of above–ground features. Educational tours were introduced to teach and inspire schoolchildren on field trips.
Construction of the building that would later become the beautiful Visitor Center unearthed many of the chert boulders — remnants of ancient sea beds — that can be observed today around the grounds and in the gardens. "Song of Norway," a musical production set in the wooded area of the grounds, was a popular experience for almost 25 years.
In 1988, Cave of the Mounds was dedicated as a National Natural Landmark, a program administered by the National Park Service. The new century brought about the development of a museum–like rock shop, mining sluice, the fossil dig and a historic Barn Discovery Center complete with classrooms and a nature center.
The beautiful locality surrounding the cave, with its stunning vistas, wonderful parks and green spaces, was becoming a popular place to settle down and start a family. Less than 30 minutes from Madison, proposed housing developments were springing up on the East Mound, quickly encroaching on the Cave of the Mounds property. Protection of the cave from pollution due to runoff from the subdivision was the main threat, as well as the danger that changing the topography could affect water flow to the cave.
The cave management team worked in partnership with the Natural Heritage Land Trust to purchase 30 acres of land adjacent to the cave entrance, along the lovely intermittent stream, running all the way to the Military Ridge State Trail. This tract would be protected by a conservation easement, a legal deed restriction preventing any structure from being built on the parcel into perpetuity. The natural beauty of the grounds surrounding the cave is now forever protected.
Although development of the land is forbidden, there are plenty of opportunities to improve the land for use as educational and interpretive space. A new hiking trail system along the stream provides solitude for visitors and a buffer for wildlife all year long. Construction of a bike trail across a corner of the Cave of the Mounds property is nearly complete and a parcel that was donated to Dane County by the Elizabeth (Brigham) Rooney family will provide parking and trail access. This bike trail spur will connect the Military Ridge State Trail to Brigham County Park, and eventually, to Wisconsin's beautiful Blue Mound State Park.
Projects restoring the grounds above the cave to pre–settlement conditions are ongoing and expanding. Native prairie and savanna plantings provide excellent habitat for fauna, and the abundant blooms vary all season long. The woodland and savanna areas contain a variety of 100– to 200–year–old oak trees that have the classic, wide savanna growth pattern and lower limbs that are being choked off by invasive species. Removing the invasive plants allows the native plants to thrive. The resulting effect is that visitors are able to hike and appreciate a rare example of native savanna — a threatened ecosystem with only 0.1 percent of the original amount remaining in North America.
Cave of the Mounds National Natural Landmark is proud to be a founding member of Travel Green Wisconsin, the state's certification program for green tourism businesses. Green initiatives on the cave property include energy, water and resource saving efforts such as using eco–friendly cleaners, energy–saving light bulbs, high–efficiency furnace systems, hand dryers in place of paper towels in restrooms, pipe insulation and a wood burning unit to assist in heating the Visitor Center with wood gathered from the grounds.
After the cave's discovery more than 75 years ago, from the very first moment light entered the cave on that hot August day in 1939, the Brigham family was devoted to preserving this land as a Wisconsin treasure to behold for future generations. This tradition lives on, as visitors from all over the state and world come to explore and discover Wisconsin's past through a historical perspective — in culture, nature and the unique underground environment — a million years in the making.
Kimberly Anderson is operations manager at Cave of the Mounds.