Cave of the Winds, located in Williams Canyon a few miles northwest of Colorado Springs, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colorado. Two schoolboys are credited with discovering the cave in 1880, though various legends hold that Ute and Apache tribes knew about it for centuries before then. The cavern itself is thought to be between 4 and 7 million years old, and the limestone formation around it is much older. Because of its size and impressive collection of mineral formations, Cave of the Winds is known as Colorado’s showcase cave, providing crowds of all ages with a glimmering glimpse of the state’s unique and beautiful geology.
Between 4 and 7 million years ago, the 500 million-year-old limestone bloc that houses the cave lay below the water table. Rainwater and carbon dioxide formed an acidic mixture on the surface and began eroding the sensitive limestone. More water seeped into these pockets, eroding more limestone and gradually carving out the many rooms and passageways that enthrall tour groups today. The cave’s speleothems, mineral deposits such as stalactites and stalagmites, began forming after the water table dropped and the cave filled with oxygen.
Local legends hold that both Apache and Ute Native Americans knew about the cave, but these stories have not been confirmed by historic or archaeological evidence. The cave is named for the legend involving the Apache, who were said to believe it was the home of a Great Spirit of the Wind. In 1869 a white settler, Arthur B. Love, found the entrance to the cave, but the first major exploration was conducted in June 1880. During a hike led by the Rev. Roselle T. Cross, pastor of the Congregational Church in Colorado Springs, the schoolboys John and George Pickett stumbled across the cave’s entrance and explored it by candlelight. Such is the traditional account of the first entry into the cave, accepted by the official website of the cave and in the majority of publications about it. There would seem to be little reason to question this simple and rather appealing story, which through a century of repetition has become entrenched among the many popular stories about the history of the Pikes Peak region.
But connoisseurs of cave history know that the story is the focus of a lengthy and complicated controversy. Did the Picketts really make a discovery? There is no doubt that the boy’s trip did happen exactly as they claimed. Within days of the event, Cross wrote an admirably detailed report in his church newsletter, the Congregational News, for July 1880. This was immediately reprinted, unchanged except for headlines, in the Colorado Springs Gazette of July 2, 1880. Although Cross exaggerated the heights and depths of vertical elements, as do most inexperienced cavers, his account is remarkably free of the florid Victorian hyperbole typical of most cave descriptions of that time. Cross and his Boys’ Exploring Association explored most of the horizontal passages accessible from the original entrance, a distance of about 200 feet—a respectable distance for schoolboys using candles.
From the very beginning, Cross was jealously possessive of his party’s status as the cave’s discoverers. He began denouncing those who doubted him as early as March 1881, when a Colorado Springs Gazette reader claimed that the cave was not new. As it turned out, the reader had confused Pickett’s Cave with the nearby Mammoth Cave (not to be confused with Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave), discovered in the mid-1870s.
George Washington Snider, one of the early developers of the cave, would eventually question Cross’s account. A stonecutter who moved to the Colorado Springs area from Ohio in the late nineteenth century, Snider and several companions explored a different section of the cave in 1881. His group found and explored what Snider named Canopy Hall—a large room nearly 200 feet long containing thousands of stalactites and stalagmites. Eager to open a tourist attraction, Snider signed a contract in partnership with Charles Rinehart to purchase the cave land from Frank Hemenway on January 29, 1881. More than thirty years later, in 1916, Snider claimed that he had been in the cave as early as 1879 and encountered evidence of others who had been there before him. While a lack of evidence makes it impossible to verify the accounts of either man, it is at least possible that the cave had visitors before 1880, as the entrance had been found by 1869.
Snider’s party had erred when they made the discovery of Canopy Hall public, as a mob swarmed into the cave the following day and stripped many of the stalactites. In February the partners reopened the cave system after finding a series of new and attractive chambers beyond Canopy Hall. This time the developments did pay off, and the Cave of the Winds quickly became one of the established attractions of the young Manitou resort.
On June 9, 1881, Snider dug into another equally impressive cave on the west side of the ridge, whose entrance he believed to be on a tract of land he had filed on in his own name. In March of 1885, after receiving title to the land, he opened this “Manitou Grand Caverns” to visitors and operated it as sole proprietor, in competition with Cave of the Winds. This brought growing differences between Snider and Rinehart to a head, and in 1885 Rinehart sued Snider for control of the caves; after Rinehart’s death in 1895, his estate was granted a one-half interest in the Grand Caverns. In 1896 Snider, facing severe family debts, turned over the cave operation to his brother Charles and left Manitou.
The Grand Caverns operation closed after Snider’s departure, with various sources giving shutdown dates ranging from 1896 to 1916, though 1906 is most likely the year of its final closure. It was later connected, by digging, to Cave of the Winds.
Cave of the Winds is accessible via US Highway 24 and features 10,765 feet of surveyed passageways, a large portion of which is open to the public. Other sections of the cave, including the crystal-filled Silent Splendor room, are sealed off in order to protect the sensitive formations. Cave of the Winds is currently managed by the Williams Canyon Project, an organization dedicated to the preservation and scientific study of all caves in Williams Canyon.
Adapted from Donald G. Davis, “That Much-Discovered Cave: Who Actually Found Cave of the Winds?,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 6, no. 3 (1986).