By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

Tennessee has more caves than any other state!

In fact, 20 percent of all the caves in the United States are found in Tennessee!

If you look at a geological map of Tennessee, you will see that Trousdale County lies at the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. If you drive from here towards Carthage, you can see the edge of the plateau in the distance.

And, if you drive from here to Cookeville, you will feel your ears pop as you climb from the lowlands up to the Cumberland highlands.

Being on the edge of this plateau gives us an edge on caves and cave formation.

As we have written earlier in this month’s articles, Trousdale County and all of Middle Tennessee were once under an ocean. As the ocean receded and the land rose, we were left with several millions of years worth of ocean sediment, which resulted in layers of hard sandstone and softer limestone.

The weathering of those upper limestone layers, and the centuries of erosion caused by rainwater, has given us the sinkholes we wrote about last week – and thousands of caves.

Tennessee has 8,600 known caves.

If you go to West Tennessee with its flat landscape, you won’t find a single cave. If you go to East Tennessee, in the Smokey Mountains, you will find a few here and there.

But on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, you will find plenty of caves.

Looking on a map of Tennessee caves, Trousdale County is shown as having 11 caves, which is 11 more than all of West Tennessee combined!

Photo by Chuck Sutherland (c)
This 2016 map shows 11 caves located in Trousdale County.

Our neighbors can boast of even more! Smith County has 107, Macon County has 39, Sumner County has 42 and Wilson County has 127.

White County has 1,233 caves!

As we wrote in last week’s article, caves can be found at the bottom of a large sinkhole, but you can also find them under a bluff or at the head of a spring.

Bluff Springs School, just across the river from here, was named for a large spring that gushed out of a small cave under a bluff.

We know that Native Americans used caves for temporary shelter, and the first white pioneers often used caves for housing until a cabin could be built. And they used caves for other reasons!

Bats can roost in large caves and as a result, thousands of years of droppings can create thick layers of bat guano. That guano could be mined for nitrates, used to make black gunpowder!

A cave in the western part of our county was once mined for that reason, and for years the remains of wooden troughs could be found just inside the cave entrance. Another interesting thing about that cave was that a primitive ladder had been made to reach a higher level of the cave. The ladder was a long section of a cedar tree, with the branches trimmed to a 1-foot length on each side.

There are laws protecting the varied and unique lifeforms inside caves, and carving your name or initials onto the walls of a cave is prohibited.

Tennessee caves are special due to the centuries of water leeching through the limestone layers, thereby creating lovely shiny rock formations that look like sandcastles or flowing frozen waterfalls.

Some Tennessee caves are large enough to offer tours and people pay money to see firsthand these beautiful rock sculptures. Which leads us to the age-old question: How do you tell the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite?

Simply remember this, “a stalactite holds ‘tight’ to the ceiling”. If it doesn’t hold ‘tight’ to the ceiling then it must be a stalagmite.