At the age of 16 George Washington was not yet the Father of His Country, but if his signature, under which the date 1748 appears, cut into the wall of a cave in Virginia, is authentic, he may well have been one of the earliest spelunkers in American history. William R. Halliday, author of Depths of the Earth (Harper & Row, $7.50), thinks there is little reason to doubt that young George was there. His signature was discovered as early as 1833, and the cave is on property once owned by the elder Washingtons. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson published the first map of any cave in the U.S. in his Notes on the State of Virginia and subsequently recorded his study of the bones of a "great cat" excavated from Organ Cave. It turned out to be the remains of a giant ground sloth, extinct some 8,000 years. Andrew Jackson's signature, dated 1814, which turned up in the Ruby Falls Cave near Chattanooga, Tenn. is judged to be a forgery or, perhaps, suggests the author, "a leftover election sign." At any rate, our early Presidents seem to have had a thing about caves long before crawling into a deep hole became recognized as the science of speleology. Caves have as many distinguishing characteristics as the men who seriously explore (or exploit) them. There are the Bat Caves of Texas, Arkansas and Missouri; the Breathing and Blowing Caves of Virginia; the Wind Cave of South Dakota: Minnesota's Mystery Cave and literally hundreds of others buried under our land.
Caves consistently give up relics of the past that tell us much of American history. The War of 1812, with the U.S. short of gunpowder because of the British blockade, might have ended differently had it not been for the tons of saltpeter excavated from Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. Melrose Cavern in the Shenandoah Valley once sheltered Union soldiers who "amused themselves by shooting down stalactites and gracefully fluted draperies; scars and neatly aligned bullet holes are still visible today." In the Southeast "many a startled southern Appalachian caver has been forced at gunpoint to gulp down a gill of raw rotgut to establish his bona fides," and though moonshining is a minor theme in the story of southeastern caves, caves are, after all, nature's own stills.
History aside, Dr. Halliday, like any dedicated speleologist, is looking for answers to the age-old questions: Which cave is the largest, the smallest, the longest, the deepest, the most beautiful...? No facet that comes to mind has been ignored, not even the problems of bats, to which a full chapter is devoted. "Do not disturb hibernating bats." We wouldn't think of it, Doctor.