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Wonders Never Cease

03/30/2012 09:26AM ● Published by Style

On April 18, 1860, two workers from the Alabaster Lime Company made a remarkable discovery near Rattlesnake Bar.

While quarrying a ledge of limestone, they removed a piece of rock and noticed a small aperture large enough for them to enter. Curious, they ventured a few yards into the cave. Unable to see, they threw a stone into the darkness and upon hearing it strike water, they left the chamber. The two excited men shared their discovery with William Gwynn, the owner of the quarry. After obtaining some candles, the three men proceeded to spend several hours exploring the cave’s many passages and chambers.

The following day, Gwynn wrote to a friend in Sacramento: “Wonders will never cease . . . On our first entrance, we descended about 15 feet, gradually to the center of the room, which is 100 by 30 feet. At the north end there is the most magnificent pulpit, in the Episcopal Church style, that man has seen. It seems that it is and should be called, the ‘Holy of Holies.’ It is completed with the most beautiful drapery of alabaster striates, of all colors, varying from white to pink-red, overhanging the beholder. Immediately under the pulpit is a beautiful lake of water extending to an unknown distance.”

Upon further exploration, the men discovered a larger chamber, exalted by Gwynn as “still more splendid, 200 by 100 feet, with the most beautiful alabaster overhanging, in every possible shape of drapery . . . Here stands magnitude, giving an instant impression of a power above man.” As word spread, hundreds of people flocked to see the newly discovered wonder, many of whom damaged or stole the treasures within their reach. Angry at the destruction, Gwynn closed the cave to the public.

He then leased the site to Messrs, Smith and Halterman. The new owners immediately went to work preparing the cave for public admission. They erected platforms and barricades, installed coal lamps and added a second opening to serve as an exit. They even built the Alabaster Hotel, which stood a short distance from the cave’s entrance; in addition, they hired an artist to create lavish sketches of the cave’s interior that served as effective promotional material.

“The register was opened April 24, 1860, and on our visit September 30, ensuing, 2,721 names had been entered,” wrote James Hutchings in his monthly magazine. He went on to describe some of the “real wonders of the cave” including the bright coral-like stalactites that hung down “in irregular rows and in almost every variety and shape and shade, from mild-white to cream color, and stand in inviting relief to the dark arches above and frowning buttresses either hand.”

Thousands soon followed to partake in the grandeur of the “Dungeon of Enchantment,” “Julia’s Bower,” and the “Crystal Chapel.” Of the latter Hutchings wrote: “It is impossible to find suitable language or comparisons to describe this magnificent spot.”

Sadly, despite the owners’ signage asking visitors not to touch the specimens, people could not resist the opportunity to take home a souvenir. Inevitably, the Alabaster Cave was sealed, its interior looking far different from the day of its discovery.

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