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Onyx Room - DeSoto Caverns
Onyx Room - DeSoto Caverns Photo courtesy DeSoto Caverns Park

DeSoto Caverns

DeSoto Caverns are nestled between the lakes and Appalachian foothills of north Central Alabama. These caverns hold one of the most concentrated accumulations of onyx-marble stalagmites and stalactites found in the United States. DeSoto Caverns have a long and interesting history.

Archaeologists have determined that the earliest known inhabitants of the area around DeSoto Caverns were from the "Archaic Period," 8,000 BC - 1000 BC. Archaic man was a cave-dweller, subsisting on small game, fish, and nuts. In the DeSoto Caverns, they have also found a burial site of the Woodland Indians (1,000 BC - 1000 AD) containing the skeletons of five Indians. But not until the arrival of Hernando DeSoto and his Spanish expedition in 1540 A.D. was the beginning of recorded history in Alabama marked. In fact, Childersburg, the city nearest the DeSoto Caverns, is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States, predating St. Augustine by 25 years. The DeSoto expedition spent a little over five weeks in the capital of the Coosa Indians, just a few miles west of the DeSoto Caverns. Their mission was two-fold: 1) to find gold; 2) to establish the first Spanish colony in the New World. DeSoto left, disappointed, as he found no gold in the surrounding territory and thus did not claim any land for Spain, but instead took slaves from among the Coosa people.

By the late 17th century, when the Europeans began to penetrate what is now the Southeast United States, the dominant Indian population was the Creek tribe, so named by the Europeans because they built their villages along the large number of waterways in the area. By tribal tradition, the Creeks place the birthplace of the Creek Indian Nation at the cave near the Coosa River now known as DeSoto Caverns. In December of 1796, Benjamin Hawkins, a United States Agent among the Creeks appointed by George Washington, told of the magnificent beauty of the DeSoto Caverns in his report to Washington, making it the first officially reported cave in the United States.

In 1814, Andrew Jackson and his men smashed the military power of the Southeastern Indians by defeating the Creeks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and many fleeing Creeks found shelter in DeSoto Caverns. At the Treaty of Fort Jackson, signed August 9, 1814, the Creeks ceded over to the Americans about half of State of Alabama -- over 20 million acres. Although Alabama became a state in 1819, it was not until the late 1830s and early 1840s that an influx of white settlers began in the area. In 1855, a post office was established in the town known today as Childersburg, then a community of about 600. During the Civil War, DeSoto Caverns became a site for mining saltpeter used in making gunpowder for the Confederate army. In 1912, the caverns were purchased by Mrs. Ida Mathis and a group of friends with the idea of mining the cave for its abundant onyx, a colorful semi-precious stone. However, more extensive studies of the caverns showed that the onyx was not of the uniform high grade needed for mass production, so the cave lay dormant for several years.

During the era of Prohibition, DeSoto Caverns were pressed into service as one of the area's speakeasies, where moonshine and gambling were available to those not too fastidious about adherence to the law. Because of the shootings and fights that erupted on a continuing basis, the caverns became known in the 1920s as "The Bloody Bucket," and Federal agents closed them down. Even when Prohibition was repealed, "The Bloody Bucket" was not reopened.

In the mid 1920s, Allen W. Mathis, son of Ida Mathis, bought out the interest in the caverns from her co-owners and secured all the underground rights to the property and surrounding areas. Throughout the first half of the 1900s, DeSoto Caverns had been a popular place for exploration for young romantics and teenager spelunkers. In the early 1960s, Mathis began to develop the caverns into a show cave, since new highways had made Childersburg easily accessible from both Birmingham and Montgomery. In 1965, the caverns were officially opened to the public. With the aid of high-power electric lights, the caverns' colorful onyx beauty could really be appreciated. Mathis' son, Allen Mathis, Jr., and grandson, Allen III, took over the operation of the caverns in 1975, and officially renamed the caverns "The DeSoto Caverns." In subsequent years, new backlighting was installed; pathways were widened; back areas of the cave were opened; a laser light show, playground, gift shop, and restaurant were added; camping facilities were enlarged and updated. In the 1990s, the park continued to add new attractions: DeSoto's Wall Climb, Gemstone Panning, and the Water Dodge. DeSoto Caverns hosts several major weekend festivals each year: the Indian Dance Festival in April, the September Fest Arts and Crafts Fair, and the Annual Festival of Lights during the Christmas season. More additions are planned as the park enters the new century. DeSoto Caverns is listed on Alabama's Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

Project documentation includes an eight-page essay, 20 8 x10 color photographs, a geological survey report, an archaeology report from the Journal of Alabama Archaeology , a speech by Senator Heflin from the 1985 Congressional Record on Childersburg, a brochure, a souvenir book on the Onyx Adventure Caves, magazine and newspaper coverage, and a videotape, "DeSoto Caverns Park, Childersburg, Alabama."

Originally submitted by: Bob Riley, Representative (3rd District).



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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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