Podcast Episodes

The Wonderful Wind Cave

In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise coming from a beach-ball-sized hole in a rock formation near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Wind was blowing out of the hole, just as it does today, with such force that it blew off Tom’s hat. As the story goes, a few days later, when Jesse returned to show the phenomenon to some friends, the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked in. The hole was the only natural entrance to a cave…a massive one.

We now understand that the movement of the wind is caused by the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. The place was dubbed the Wonderful Wind Cave, before it became only our seventh National Park of the United States. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks: three eras of Wind Cave National Park: It’s first explorer, the Lakota origin story, and a teenager lost for 37 hours. 


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Wind Cave National Park

Transcript


Jason Epperson: The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.
This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at findyourpark.com.

In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise coming from a beach ball-sized hole in a rock formation near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Wind was blowing out of the hole, just as it does today, with such force that it blew off Tom’s hat. As the story goes, a few days later, when Jesse returned to show the phenomenon to some friends, the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked in. The hole was the only natural entrance to a cave…a massive one.

We now understand that the movement of the wind is caused by the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. The place was dubbed the Wonderful Wind Cave, before it became only our seventh National Park of the United States. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks: three eras of Wind Cave National Park.

Abigail Trabue: Alvin Frank McDonald was born in 1873 in Franklin County, Iowa, and moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1890 at the age of 17. His father had been hired in by a mining company to oversee the company’s claim. It’s not known if the mining company expected to find minerals of value in the cave or planned on developing it for tours. The McDonald family decided to attempt to make a living from the cave by enlarging passageways and building wooden ladders and steps with the hope of attracting travelers.

Alvin fell in love with the cave, and began systematically exploring its passageways. He used a single candle at a time, and unraveled a string behind him as he went deeper and deeper, so that he would always know his way out. He kept a journal in which he described his exploration of the cave and the naming of the rooms and passageways. He began giving tours to travelers from nearby Hot Springs, calling himself “the permanent guide” of Wind Cave.

Though the wonders of wind cave were spectacular, travelers were not prepared to crawl on their hands and knees in suits and dresses. One day, Alvin left a small tour group in a room in the cave with their lunch while he explored a bit. He got so deep into discovering, he forgot all about them, only to remember moments before falling asleep in his bed that he left the group behind with one candle which was surely burnt out.

Alvin spent all day almost every day for more than three years exploring and guiding within Wind Cave. He gave names to rooms, routes, and interesting features. He estimated distances, and through his diary he kept a record of explorations. He quickly realized the complex nature of the cave; passageways that he would explore 10 miles of. He wrote in his journal that he had given up the idea of finding the end of the cave. He appreciated the beauty and natural features, but like others of his era, removed cave formations to sell to visitors.

In the spring of 1891, the McDonald family was busy making improvements in the cave and gearing up for the tourist season. J.D. McDonald, Alvin’s father, was making weekly visits to Hot Springs to report to the local paper on the progress of developments. Talk of the cave’s potential caught the interest of a man named John Stabler, who McDonald sold somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 interest to, creating the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Stabler was also given the right to build a hotel near the cave entrance.

To publicize the cave, J.D. McDonald traveled to Iowa to display minerals at the Ottumwa Coal Palace and the Sioux City Corn Palace. During the summers of 1892 and 1893, two large publicity stunts made local headlines. One was a petrified man “found” near Wind Cave and promptly displayed inside it. The other was the arrival of Professor Paul Alexander Johnstone. Johnstone, a famous mind reader, ventured into the cave blindfolded to search for and eventually find a pin hidden there by local townsfolk.

In November of 1893, Alvin left Hot Springs to join his father in Chicago. He was to assist in selling cave specimens at the World’s Columbian Exposition. He contracted typhoid fever in Chicago, and died about a month later. He was 20 years old. Alvin was buried near the cave he loved so dearly. A bronze plaque on a stone marks his grave on a hill above the natural entrance.

Though his life and time at Wind Cave were short, much of what we know today about the mysterious caverns are a direct result of Alvin McDonald’s meticulous journal.

Jason Epperson: During the next few years, ownership of the cave became a major question. A lack of a government survey of the area made possession of a clear title almost impossible. Mining and agricultural claims provided only a small degree of protection to the owner as they were dependent upon proofs of improvement and/or valuable mineral deposits. In 1893, the South Dakota Mining Company brought suit against the McDonalds and Stablers for restitution of property and premises. But by this time both the McDonalds and Stablers had filed homesteading claims around and over the entrance to the cave. The case was in court for several years, but no decision was reached.

Of course, as it goes with most of our natural wonders, indigenous people had long before found Wind Cave, though there’s no evidence they ever entered it. To the Lakota people, wind cave is a sacred place, an important piece of their very existence.

Ranger Sina Bear Eagle: In Lakota culture, history is passed down to new generations through the spoken word. There are many different versions of the Emergence Story, varying from band to band and family to family.

his story begins at a time when the plants and the animals were still being brought into existence, but there were no people or bison living on the earth. People at that time lived underground in the Tunkan Tipi — the spirit lodge — and were waiting as the earth was prepared for them to live upon it.

To get to the spirit lodge, one must take a passageway through what the ancestors referred to as Oniya Oshoka, where the earth “breathes inside.” This place is known today as Wind Cave, referred to in modern Lakota as Maka Oniye or “breathing earth.” Somewhere, hidden deep inside this passageway, is a portal to the spirit lodge and the spirit world.

There were two spirits who lived on the surface of the earth: Iktomi and Anog-Ite. Iktomi, the spider, was the trickster spirit. Before he was Iktomi, his name was Woksape — “Wisdom” — but lost his name and position when he helped the evil spirit Gnaskinyan play a trick on all the other spirits. Anog-Ite, the double face woman, had two faces on her head. On one side, she had a lovely face, rivaling the beauty of any other woman who existed. On the other, she had a horrible face, which was twisted and gnarled. To see this face would put chills down any person’s spine.

Anog-Ite was once Ite, the human wife of the wind spirit, Tate. She longed to be a spirit herself, so when the evil Gnaskinyan told her dressing up as the moon spirit, Hanwi, would grant her wish, she followed without question. Gnaskinyan used both Ite and Woksape as pawns in his trick on the other spirits. The Creator, Takuskanskan, decided not to punish Gnaskinyan for this trick, because evil does what’s in its nature. Woksape and Ite were both punished because they let their pride determine their actions and allowed themselves to be guided by evil, when both should have known better. Takuskanskan transformed the two into Iktomi and Anog-Ite, allowing Iktomi to play tricks forever and Anog Ite to be the spirit she desired to be. Both were banished to the surface of the earth.

Iktomi and Anog-Ite had only each other for company. Iktomi spent his time playing tricks on Anog-Ite, torturing her and never allowing her to live in peace, but this pastime soon bored him. He wanted new people to play tricks on, so he set his sights on the humans. He knew he needed help for this trick; he asked Anog-Ite, promising he’d never torment her again. She agreed to these terms and began loading a leather pack.

Anog-Ite filled this pack with buckskin clothing intricately decorated with porcupine quills, different types of berries, and dried meat. She then loaded the pack onto the back of her wolf companion, Sungmanitu Tanka. When the wolf was ready, Iktomi led him to a hole in the ground and sent the wolf inside Oniya Oshoka to find the humans. The wolf followed the passageways until it met the humans.

Anog-Ite was once Ite, the human wife of the wind spirit, Tate. She longed to be a spirit herself, so when the evil Gnaskinyan told her dressing up as the moon spirit, Hanwi, would grant her wish, she followed without question. Gnaskinyan used both Ite and Woksape as pawns in his trick on the other spirits. The Creator, Takuskanskan, decided not to punish Gnaskinyan for this trick, because evil does what’s in its nature. Woksape and Ite were both punished because they let their pride determine their actions and allowed themselves to be guided by evil, when both should have known better. Takuskanskan transformed the two into Iktomi and Anog-Ite, allowing Iktomi to play tricks forever and Anog Ite to be the spirit she desired to be. Both were banished to the surface of the earth.

Iktomi and Anog-Ite had only each other for company. Iktomi spent his time playing tricks on Anog-Ite, torturing her and never allowing her to live in peace, but this pastime soon bored him. He wanted new people to play tricks on, so he set his sights on the humans. He knew he needed help for this trick; he asked Anog-Ite, promising he’d never torment her again. She agreed to these terms and began loading a leather pack.

Anog-Ite filled this pack with buckskin clothing intricately decorated with porcupine quills, different types of berries, and dried meat. She then loaded the pack onto the back of her wolf companion, Sungmanitu Tanka. When the wolf was ready, Iktomi led him to a hole in the ground and sent the wolf inside Oniya Oshoka to find the humans. The wolf followed the passageways until it met the humans.

Once there, he told the people about the wonders of the Earth’s surface, and showed them the pack on his back. One man took out the buckskin clothing and felt the soft leather. His wife tried on a dress and, when he looked at her, he thought the dress accentuated her beauty. Next they took out the meat, tasted it, and passed it around amongst some of the people. The meat intrigued them. They’d never hunted before, and had never tasted anything like meat. They wanted more.

The wolf told them if they followed him to the surface of the Earth, he’d show them where to find meat and all the other gifts he brought. The leader of the humans was a man named Tokahe — “The First One” — and he refused to go with the wolf. He objected, saying the Creator had instructed them to stay underground, and that’s what he’d do. Most of the people stayed with Tokahe, but all those who tried the meat followed the wolf to the surface.

The journey to the surface was long and perilous. When they reached the hole, the first thing the people saw was a giant blue sky above them. The surface of the earth was bright, and it was summertime, so all the plants were in bloom. The people looked around and thought the earth’s surface was the most gorgeous place they’d ever been before.
The wolf led the people to the lodge of Anog-Ite, who was in disguise; she had her sina — “shawl” — wrapped over her head, hiding her horrible face and revealing only her beautiful face. Anog-Ite invited the people inside, and they asked her about the clothes and the food. She promised to teach the people how to obtain those things, and soon she taught the people how to hunt and how to work and tan an animal hide.

This work was difficult, however. The people had never struggled like this in the spirit lodge. They grew tired easily and worked slowly. Time passed, and summer turned to fall, then to winter. The people knew nothing about the Earth’s seasons and had worked so slowly that, by the time the first snow came, they didn’t have enough clothes or food for everyone. They began to freeze and starve.

They returned to the lodge of Anog- Ite to beg for help, but it was then that she revealed her true intentions. She ripped the shawl from her head, revealing her horrible face, and with both faces — beautiful and horrible — laughed at the people.

The people recoiled in terror and ran away, so she sent her wolf after them to chase and snap at their heels. They ran back to the site of the hole from which they’d emerged, only to find that it had been covered, leaving them trapped on the surface.

The people didn’t know what to do nor where to go, so they simply sat down on the ground and cried. At this time the Creator heard them, and asked why they were there. They explained the story of the wolf and Anog-Ite, but the Creator was upset.

The Creator said, “You should not have disobeyed me; now I have to punish you.” The way the Creator did that was by transforming them — turning them from people into these great, wild beasts. This was the first bison herd.
Time passed, and the earth was finally ready for people to live upon it. The Creator instructed Tokahe to lead the people through the passageway in the cave and onto the surface. On the way, they stopped to pray four times, stopping last at the entrance.

On the surface, the people saw the hoof prints of a bison. The Creator instructed them to follow that bison. From the bison, they could get food, tools, clothes, and shelter. The bison would lead them to water. Everything they needed to survive on the earth could come from the bison.

When they left the cave, the Creator shrunk the hole from the size of a man to the size it is now, too small for most people to enter, to serve as a reminder so the people would never forget from where they’d come.

Jason Epperson: Wind cave, like many caves, is full of rooms with tongue-in-cheek names provided by their discoverers. The Bachelor’s Quarters is named for the thin layer of dust and dirt that covers everything in it. Spelunkers on a lunch break in two large rooms they had just found had all coincidentally brought sandwiches made on bagels. The new rooms were dubbed the Bagel Ballroom, and a hole in the floor that led to another room was dubbed “Bagel Hole.” A large, connected gallery became the “Bagel Bowl.”

In 1989 a new room would be discovered, completely unintentionally. It was named before it was ever found … by a psychic.

Here again is Abigail Trabue.

Abigail Trabue: On Sunday, October 22nd, 1989, the National Outdoor Leadership school conducted a mock search-and-rescue operation at Wind Cave National Park. The 17 Young cavers were paired into teams of two, and set out into the various passageways. 18-year-old Talahassee Florida native Rachel Cox and her partner found themselves deep in a passageway disagreeing about the way back. An argument ensued, and the pair split, each going their own way. Rachel was unfortunately wrong. After a long time heading in the wrong direction her single carbon light source extinguished. But instead of staying put, she continued to try to find her way out before falling through a 50-foot vertical shaft.

Nearly 150 volunteers began searching for Rachel in rotating shifts, a process made difficult by the thick walls of the cave that don’t transmit sound well. Eventually, volunteers heard clicking noises about 1000 feet from where she was reported lost. They then made voice contact with her, but not until they were almost right above her. They passed her food and water through a crevice while they searched for another two hours for a large enough space for Rachel to crawl out of. She left the cave at 2:40 a.m. that Wednesday, 37 hours after she was lost.

Before she was found, the park received a call from a psychic who said Cox would be found in a room with “Duncan” in the name. In fact, the room she had been discovered in was new territory that had yet to be described. To fulfill the psychic’s prediction, it was dubbed Duncan Room.

Jason Epperson: Rachel Cox’s misfortune led to new safety precautions for cave explorers. Teams of three are the norm nowadays, and cavers always carry three sources of light.

Wind Cave is known for it’s formations of boxwork, a unique, brittle formation rarely found elsewhere that looks like mail slots, or miniature shoeboxes. Wind Cave National Park is full of underground wonders, of course, but the park is just as spectacular above ground, where the vast South Dakota prairie meets the island of Ponderosa Pines called the Black Hills. Bison and Elk majestically roam the open prairie, above the massive prairie dog towns. In fact, it’s one of the best National Parks I know of for wildlife, and you get to avoid the crowds of more popular parks like Yellowstone. Bison and prairie dogs will great you on any visit, but the Elk take a little more patience. They’re a finicky creature, but still can be seen from trails and the main park road, usually around dusk. There’s nothing like a massive bull leaping through the air.

Cave tours are offered year round, but the quantity drastically decreases outside of the summer busy season. There’s no fee to enter the park, and even if you don’t have time for a cave tour, the scenic drive on Highway 385 from Hot Springs, up through Wind Cave National Park, and into Custer State Park is well worth the trip.

There is a no-hookup campground and available backcounty camping within the park, but campers looking for water and electricity should consider staying at Custer, or in the Angostura Recreation Area to the south.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue, with ranger Sina Bear Eagle. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.



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