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Promoters Exaggerate Oregon Caves in 1890's


The Oregon Caves were discovered in 1874, but didn’t get widespread attention until 1888, when promoters generated exaggerated publicity.

Spurred by articles in a Portland literary magazine, Homer Harkness and two brothers reached the caves in 1888 by traveling a wagon road with packhorses.  Their account of the visit apparently was the basis for including the cave in the first tourist guidebook for Oregon and Washington, published in 1891.  Another trio of investors interested a reporter and photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, whose articles offended some Oregonians because they implied the caves were newly discovered.

It took awhile to settle on the name of the caves. The choices were the Great Limestone Caves, the Josephine County Caves, or the Oregon Caves.  The promoter Alfonso B. Smith of San Diego claimed the cave contained 22 miles of labyrinths with 600 chambers. His publicity described a “fairy chamber” with California diamonds and a tornado room that featured a windstorm once a day.  Supposedly a six-horse stage wagon could be driven inside for about 10 miles. 

Most locals knew this was hogwash, but the publicity did capture the attention of the Smithsonian.

Sources: Mark, Stephen R. Domain of the Cavemen: A Historic Resource Study of Oregon Caves National Monument. Oakland, Calif.: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2006. 37-39. Web. 22 Nov. 2014. .

Maryann Mason has taught history and English in the U.S. Midwest and Northwest, and Bolivia. She has written history spots for local public radio, interviewed mystery writers for RVTV Noir, and edited personal and family histories.  Her poetry has appeared in Sweet Annie & Sweet Pea Review (1999), Rain Magazine (2007), and The Third Reader, an online Journal of Literary Fiction and Poetry. In 2008 she published her first chapbook, Ravelings.  She organized a History Day for Southern Oregon.