Harlansburg Caverns

Harlansburg Cave Rescue

by Ed McClelland

A natural cavern of considerable interest to spelunkers was discovered in Western Pennsylvania in 1950. In Harlansburg, Pennsylvania (Lawrence County), road construction crews exposed the caves along Route 108. The purpose of the construction was to eliminate a tortuous "S" curve leading down the hill into Harlansburg. That "S" curve was the site of many accidents. The McClelland Funeral Home stood right at the bottom of the hill. The ambulance service was busy when a little rain hit the hot asphalt in the summer. Sometimes the cars would not make it around the first curve and roll over and over down through a field. If they made it around the first curve, sometimes the second one landed them in the McClelland front yard.

One day, when the construction crew was drilling through the limestone to place their dynamite charges, the drill bit (about 10 feet long) dropped into a void, then again and again. When they blasted, they opened some natural caverns that no one knew were there. Being a restless 16-year-old I had to explore this new natural wonder. I was struck by the pristine beauty in the floor of the cave where there were little ripples in the fine silt under a couple inches of water. There were no animal tracks visible at that time, at least not near the newly opened entrances by the road. I made several trips into the cave, first with a flashlight, later with a carbide miners lamp. It was an awesome experience stepping into a natural cavern millions of years old where no one had ever been before. It wasn't exactly safe either since the blasting had brought down some of the cave roof near the road.

One day I offered to show the cave to a couple of friends. Since it was to be a quick trip we only took flashlights with us. Big mistake! I knew better too because I had been temporarily lost in the cave before. Well, no panic since I had always been able to find my way out by the process of elimination. Unfortunately, the flashlights didn't last long enough to accomplish this. There was nothing we could do but sit and wait. I assured my companions that our parents knew where we were and that someone would be looking for us soon. Twelve hours later we finally heard a voice. Twelve hours of absolute darkness, listening to the dripping water and the bats flying by, and wearing nothing but wet pants and tee shirts in 55 degree temperature—the ambient temperature in most caves the world over.

When we were led out of the cave about 2:00 am, it looked like a county fair. The whole cut in the hillside was illuminated. There were hundreds people, fire trucks, ambulances, miners equipment, etc. The local radio station, WKST New Castle, was doing a live broadcast; photographers from several newspapers snapping pictures. It was on the UPS and APS. I got fan mail from all over the country.

We learned later that they had brought in coal miners with all their equipment, including huge fans to pump air into the cave. However, the miners were wary of entering a natural cave which already had some of the roof blasted in, and no shoring. Our rescuers turned out to be some local young fellows who had explored the caves recently. They finally convinced the sheriff that it was safe so they were allowed to start the search. With the help of compasses and a large ball of twine stretched from the entrance they finally found us.

The cave is a honeycomb of passages; going only 25 to 50 feet in any one direction to an intersection with passages leading off in three other directions. The roof is only 15 to 20 feet high because that is the approximate thickness of the limestone strata. There is a foot or two of silt on the floor, covered in many places with a couple inches of crystal clear water. There are a few stalactites and stalagmites in some chambers, but nothing of any great size or beauty. The cave is all on one level, with the total extent estimated to be anywhere from 1500 to 5000 feet. There were many bats living in the cave, but certainly not millions—no one knew how they got in. One theory is that the bats came in through crevices in the rocks in the Slippery Rock Creek gorge, about a mile-and-a-half away. That is also the site of the McConnells Mill State Park and a covered bridge. Although possible, I think it is doubtful that the bats gained access from that far away. The passages keep getting smaller as you proceed in that direction, until they too small for a person to crawl through long before you would reach the Slippery Rock Creek. I think it is more likely that the bats found access in a gully up the hill behind the auto-body shop, or possibly near where the small stream flowed into the old limestone quarry.

In the early 1940s the WPA had surface-mined limestone a few hundred yards from where the caves were opened up. The little stream there which ran out of the cave year around was filled with delicious watercress. Nothing was ever done with the limestone they mined—it was just stacked up and left there.

It should also be noted that the road construction cut through several cave passages so that there were three or four entrances on each side of the road. However, the passages on the north side of the road (right side going up hill) had much more of the roof caved in and quickly became too small to crawl through as they proceeded toward the old quarry.

During the late 1950s someone tried to open the caves by digging into the hill beyond the funeral home. It was then a steep pasture field. They used an old steam shovel in two places trying to gain entrance to the caves, but they ran out of funds and were not successful. If they had dug just a little farther they probably would have found the caves.

It is a unique sensory experience being deep in a natural cave with absolutely no light or sound except the occasional whir of bat wings or drips of water. Because this cave is a veritable honeycomb of passages with sound-absorbing mud on the walls and floor sound does not carry far at all. Just go around a couple of corners twenty or thirty feet from your companions and you cannot hear each other no matter how loud you shout.

I later joined the National Speleological Society and had some caving adventures in some large caves in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, one of which (Kookens farm) almost turned into a disaster. But, that's another story.

See the Mid-Atlantic Karsk Conservancy site for more information on the Harlansburg Cave; and pictures of the gating.

Article in PDF format: HARLANSBURG CAVE: THE LONGEST CAVE IN PENNSYLVANIA by J. Philip Fawley and Kenneth M. Long, Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, 59(3): 106-111In HTML format without images.

P.S. The dog's name was "Penny," not "Andy."

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Updated 11 Sep 2009