A cavern in New York holds clues about the Earth’s origins

Howe Caverns may be a popular tourist attraction for some, but the cave east of Syracuse, New York may also hold some answers about how earth began. We venture underground for a look at this natural wonder.

TRANSCRIPT

A popular tourist attraction for some, Howe Caverns, located about 100 miles east of Syracuse, may even hold some answers about how Earth began.

We venture underground for a look at this natural wonder.

Here's the story.

One of the things that's unique about Howe Caverns is that it does have actually a stream in it, which is very unusual for caves in the United States.

And we're one of the few that has a boat ride.

And to me, when you're down there, and you're thinking about the cavern, you just -- you know, if you put your head in a time mode, it's just the immense amount of time that it took for everything to go on down there.

400 million years ago to form the rock.

And then the amount of time that it took for the water erosion to form the cave, and then the different amount of time that it takes for the dripping water to form the formations.

It's just -- if you think about the time, it's really amazing, and that water did all of that.

[ Water rushing ] The formations in the cave, we have three different types, basically -- stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone.

Those are all formed by water seeping through the soil.

It picks up carbon dioxide as it comes through the soil, and that forms a very weak carbonic acid.

And when that comes in contact with the limestone, it dissolves a little bit of it.

And then when the water drips through the ceiling of the cavern, the carbon dioxide gets released, and the tiny deposit of dissolved limestone, which has changed names -- now it's called calcite -- builds up, forming the formations.

And depending on how fast or how slow or if it's just flowing down the side of the wall depends on which formation that it forms.

If you start with the geology of Howe Caverns, you have to start with the rock.

You know, how did the rock get here?

And we have to go back over 400 million years ago, during the Silurian Period.

In that particular point in time, the United States was sort of on its side.

Where we are here in New York state was actually below the equator.

And this part of the state, and much of the country, was underwater at that time, and a lot of the deposits and shells from the sea settled to the bottom and built up layer upon layer, forming the rock.

And after many years, it got higher and higher through the different periods, and hardened into the different rock layers that you now see.

And then there was a fracture between the layers, and water started running through the fracture.

And after many, many thousands and million of years of water erosion, it carved out the hole that is now Howe Caverns.

And the stream's still running that did that.

It varies in volume from time to time, but as long as that stream still runs, the cavern still forms.

If you look over the railing to the right, you'll see a rather large flowstone formation.

And we call this Henry the Turtle, 'cause he kind of looks like a turtle.

Now, back in the day when Henry was forming, the water used to flow in through the side wall here, run down over the formation, deposit its particle, and then run into the River Styx.

And at some point in time, the water just stopped flowing.

Now, Henry does serve us a purpose.

He's a water marker.

In the middle of his back, there are two little stubby stalagmites there.

And the River Styx, by the way, acts as a regular surface stream.

When there's excessive rain or when the snow melts, the water comes up.

And when there's drought, the water goes down.

The stalactites are the ones that look kind of like an icicle hanging down.

There's a 'C' in that word for 'ceiling.'

And the stuff that doesn't get deposited from the stalactites drips on the floor, and that builds up to form a stalagmite.

There's a 'G' in that word for the 'ground' or the floor.

And sometimes the minerals get mixed in with that, and they show up as different colors in the formations.

For instance, the calcite by itself will be a cream-ish color, off that way.

One of the other brown-ish, more cream.

The lighter color it is towards white, the more pure the calcite is.

Gray-blacks would be salts of alumina mineral.

Yellows would be sulfur, greens copper, and gray-blacks salts of aluminum.

It all started on May 22, 1842, when our founder, Lester Howe, noticed his cows standing in front of a bush instead of under shade trees, where cows normally belong on a warm day.

And he went over there to find out why.

And he found out those cows weren't so dumb after all, 'cause there was a nice cool breeze of air coming out from behind the bush they were standing in front of.

And he pushed the bush aside, and behind the bush was an opening in the ground, which turned out to be the natural entrance to Howe Caverns.

And he explored for a while, on and off for about a year, taking rope into the cave so he could find his way back out, and decided to open the cave to the public.

And tours started in 1843 from the natural entrance, which is a mile east of here.

And his tours could take anywhere from 8 to 10 hours.

They had a box lunch along the way.

They were $2.50 a person.

And it was quite a venture back in those days.

There were no walkways or railings or lights in the cave.

This is called the Cathedral Pipe Organ.

And the way the flowstone formed, it looks like the pipes of a pipe organ.

And directly across the path from that is the Canopy Over the Seat of the Bishop, also known as the Keyboard to the Organ.

Now, in the years before Lester Howe's tours, this flowstone used to go all the way down to the floor.

As a matter of fact, it looked very similar to the Pipe Organ on the left-hand side.

But some of the early tourists wanted to take home souvenirs, and, also, I imagine Lester Howe chopped some of this away so people could more easily get through here.

And they chopped off the bottom part of the flowstone here.

And flowstone, when it gets to the bottom and just sort of hangs off a rock, is also like a stalactite.

And a stalactite forms with a hollow in the middle.

Something like a soda straw.

And when you chop the bottom off, it leaves the hollows behind.

And it's said, if you're to stand under there and hum the correct low-tone note, that note will resonate in those holes, and it will sound like a note being played by the organ on the opposite side.

[ Humming ]

To the left is called the Pool of Siloam or Pool of Peace.

What this actually is is a reflection of the side wall and the ceiling above it.

Now, the reflection also makes the water appear to be extremely deep.

But it's not.

It's actually only about three or four feet deep.

The Lake of Venus is an eighth of a mile long, and it ranges in depth from two to eight feet.

Most places it's like four to six feet deep.

And the boats are 2.5 tons when they're fully loaded.

They were brought down in pieces and put together on the dock and placed in the water.

And you take the boat ride down the lake, which is about an eighth of a mile down.

At the end of the lake is the dam, and beyond the dam there's 2,100 feet to what was originally the natural entrance of the cavern.

Now, of that 2,100 feet, 1,800 feet of it still exists.

900 feet of it have been destroyed by limestone mining.

And there's a small portion left at the natural entrance.

I think the cave is what it's all about.

It's about coming to see what nature can do with water.

And just trying to explain that to people, and get them to have some understanding of what it is that water can do.

[ Water rushing ]