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Sunday, October 06, 2002

Few know this cave's deep, dark secrets

By ZEKE BARLOW
SPECIAL TO THE ROANOKE TIMES

   CATAWBA MURDER HOLE - Marian McConnell stands deep in a cave near a deeper pit labeled "Hell" as she sings her tale of evil and mystery. In the depths of the Earth some 160 feet beyond sunlight, her words bounce off the muddy walls and die in the darkness.

Legends of murder and lovers and knights,

Only the cave knows the truth from the lies.

She's been here for ages; she'll outlive us all,

Her stories will echo down her dark walls.

    McConnell's sweet voice carries foreboding as she reaches the crescendo of her dark tale about this dark hole.

Murder Hole, Murder Hole.

Murder Hole, Catawba Murder Hole.

    With a smattering of applause from the small audience of dirty cavers, the impromptu concert stops and the exploration of Murder Hole continues.

    There are 12 cavers on this day whom McConnell and her husband, Dan, are leading through the infamous grotto on their land in Botetourt County. But hundreds, maybe thousands, have ventured down here before. One man died inside the cave's belly; countless others have perished in her folk tales. Some descended by ropes; many left on stretchers. Some were trespassers looking for a rush; some were scientists seeking the undiscovered. But they all descended into the Earth when they felt the lure of Catawba Murder Hole.

The facts

    "Murder Hole" is cave system that snakes underneath the McConnells' land in a series of rooms and tunnels, each with its own name. It begins with an enormous sinkhole called Daylight Cave that punctures the ground and continues through a dark maze that takes the caver to a 75-foot shaft in the bowels of the Earth, the actual "Murder Hole."

    Many, many, many years ago, Daylight Cave was probably a large cave room with thick stalagmites that reached to stalactites that dripped from the thin ceiling.

    Then one day, light met darkness. "Mother Nature said, ' I can't hold this anymore,' " Dan McConnell explained.

    Maybe little by little, perhaps in one giant collapse, the roof fell until the room turned into a giant, yawning sinkhole exposed to the sun and leaves and elements. Eventually - nobody's sure when, exactly - it came to look like it does today: an oblong hole in the Earth 120 feet long, 75 feet wide and 120 feet deep.

    Ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits cling to the vertical limestone walls and fog floats in the void, seeking a home between the warm world above and the cold underworld below.

    In the corners of Daylight Cave, the adventurous can crawl into either of two passages, Fatman's Squeeze or Screw Hole, and descend to where walls resemble mutated popcorn and brown flowstone looks like giant, chocolate tobacco leaves.

    The area is called Tobacco Shed, and beyond it there are smaller rooms to explore, such as Sanctuary, where thin, milky-white mineral formations called soda straws drip to the ground.

    It's off Tobacco Shed that the actual Murder Hole leads to the deepest darkness. The shaft, which bears a red graffiti label "Hell" and is where McConnell sang her song, is rarely explored because descending into it would disturb formations. The dark, narrow and damp tunnel ends 234 feet below ground, and there are even more rooms to explore from there.

    Virginia has roughly 4,000 caves and is one of the top five "cave" states in the country. But a minority of its caves have sinkhole entrances that reach straight down into the Earth like Murder Hole.

    But the facts about Murder Hole aren't as interesting as the legends behind the cave's ominous name.

The legends  

The tales that surround Murder Hole are as tall as the cave is deep.

    Many years ago, a tinkerer was traveling through the Catawba Valley on a buggy laden with the goods of his trade when he stumbled upon a farmer. The farmer cast an envious eye on the tinkerer's possessions, so he killed him in cold blood, stole his worldly belongings and drove the horse and buggy - which contained only the dead tinkerer's body - into this wide sinkhole, disposing of the evidence forever.

    It was such a clever cover-up that nobody has any proof it happened. The McConnells have hauled bag after bag of trash out of the pit but have yet to come across any wagon wheels or human remains that might give credence to this tale.

    There are others, including one that takes on Shakespearean proportions: A young couple whose families forbid them to marry decide it's better to die together than live apart. So they drive a horse and buggy over the cliff.

    "True or false, I heard it for the last 53 years," said Linda Starkey of the legend behind the cave's name. Her family owned the property for generations before selling to the McConnells in 1993.

    The grotto's name might have also come from the days when knights would storm castles, only to find themselves in a narrow passage referred to as Murder Hole, where rocks and hot oil would rain down from above.

    There have even been rumors that the famous Beale's Treasure is buried somewhere in the crevasses.

    But the only confirmed death in the cave occurred in 1958, when David Spencer, a 26-year-old member of the Virginia Tech cave club, fell during a descent and was killed instantly. Spencer was 25 feet into Daylight Cave when his hemp rope suddenly snapped. Investigators later figured out the rope had been stored in a janitor's closet, where it became soaked with Vani-Sol, a corrosive toilet bowl cleaner, that weakened the rope's fibers and caused it to break.

    Ira Bell remembers the day Spencer died. In 32 years of living across the street from the road that leads to the cave, he saw many rescue squads fish unprepared spelunkers out of the hole.

    "One fellow told me the only thing it was good for was throwing old, worn-out foxhounds in there," he said.

Unwelcome visitors

    Still, the curious will always be that way. When there's a gaping hole in the Earth, it's going to attract gapers, and some won't make it out as easily as they made it in.

    Three of them were Dallis Hollandsworth, Adrian Parris and Eric Fleshman. They were sitting around on Christmas Eve 1969, bored out of their teenage skulls.

    Fleshman suggested that they check out Murder Hole, a cave he said he'd been in before. One of the other boys said he'd heard that someone had been pushed to their death there years earlier.

    The trio piled in Parris' 1958 Oldsmobile and headed toward Catawba, equipped with a pack of smokes, two hard hats, two flashlights and a short rope. After descending a rocky slope into Daylight Cave, they ventured into the darkness of the main cavern.

    "We went a couple of hundred feet in that cave, and everything sort of ended," Hollandsworth recalled recently. "Then there was a hole straight down and a cable tied to a stalagmit." Murder Hole.

    Hollandsworth descended the slick cable first, followed by Fleshman. Hollandsworth "was saying how great everything looked and I should come on down," Parris recalled.

    "Before I go down, one of you better come up here," he said. Hollandsworth tried, then Fleshman, but neither could climb back up the slippery cable. They were stuck on a ledge halfway down Murder Hole. To make matters worse, one of the boys dropped their lone flashlight into the hole. Parris went to get help, leaving Hollandsworth and Fleshman in the dark for a few hours.

    "It was sort of scary," Hollandsworth said. "I was afraid I was going to fall off the ledge, and I kept thinking I saw things."

    When Parris returned, he was accompanied by the rescue squad, as well as the Botetourt County Sheriff, who charged the boys with trespassing after they were rescued. (They were later found not guilty after a judge ruled the "No Trespassing" signs illegible.)

    "The sheriff ... was upset because he had to do all that work on Christmas Eve," Hollandsworth said. "Everyone wanted to go home and have a nice dinner, and we ruined it."

    When he was finally out of the cave, Parris told a reporter: "You couldn't drag me to this place with a team of wild horses." To this day, the 51-year-old Salemite has never gone back in a cave, nor does he intend to.

    A pile of other Murder Hole mishaps similar to Parris' turn yellow in newspaper archives. Each involved a curious, unprepared person who wanted to see what mysteries lie at the bottom of a hole in the ground.

The inhabitants

    There have been uninvited guests of the cave who are welcome nonetheless.

    In its deepest, darkest recesses, where the mud is like peanut butter and the body has squeezed through all the cave's contortions, a creature like no other has been found.

    A 3-mm-long, blind cave beetle -- Pseudanophthalmus catawbiensis -- was first discovered in 1994. That find landed Murder Hole on the list of significant caves in Virginia that contain endangered or unique biota. But there are more life forms than just the beetle that have been found in the darkness.

    One of the four bats living in the cave is an endangered gray bat unusual to this area.

    And in another of the five explored caves on the McConnells' land, four bison teeth that date back to before the Ice Age were found imbedded in flowstone. One of the teeth was sent to the Smithsonian for analysis and now is kept in an old ring box of Marian McConnell's.

The stewards

    "Welcome to our world," Marian McConnell said to Cindy Hutchinson as she made her first descent into Daylight Cave. Hutchinson was among the group of cavers getting their first peek at Murder Hole. Many had heard of it for years -- either the legends or facts -- and wanted to see for themselves its treasures.

    Since the McConnells bought the property almost a decade ago, they've brought scores of people into the cave in an effort to expand knowledge of caves and cave safety. These are people who are serious about caves.

    Dan McConnell has spent hundreds of hours becoming a certified cave rescuer and is passionate about ropes and rescue. Marian McConnell has written songs and books about caves and has painted illustrations of her family in one. They plan to make a documentary of the cave's history. They both belong to the Blue Ridge Grotto and the National Speleological Society, caving groups that promote education, safety and conservation.

    The McConnells know that Murder Hole attracts people ; they just want to make sure that visitors have knowledge and permission before going into the cave.

    "Going into this cave unescorted is the best way to see the inside of the Botetourt County jail cell," Dan McConnell said. Safety aside, they also want to keep the cave free of vandals. In the cave's interior, spray-painted initials and swastikas from 1968 cover some walls. Many of the soda straw formations have been broken off.

    The McConnells want to help the cave heal the wounds it has incurred from the curious and careless over the years. They don't allow trips into it during the winter so as to protect hibernating bats. It's all part of taking care of the land they love, they say. They've dubbed their plot "Miracle Ridge."

    "I don't think of us as owners. We're just stewards. It's our job to protect it while we're here," Dan McConnell said. "It was here for thousands of years before us. It'll be here for thousands more years after we're gone."

    And maybe in the future, legends will abound and stories will continue. Many more will talk of their adventures deep underground, and some will make up a few tales along the way.

    Only in the darkness of that deep hole, the truth will lie.

    For more information on Catawba Murder Hole and other caves, contact the McConnells at 966-1345 or the Blue Ridge Grotto at 989-7693


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