The first discussion of forming a new caving group in the Washington, DC area occurred at a restaurant in Georgetown after a D.C. Grotto meeting in the fall of 1957. On December 7, 1957, in Arlington, VA, the Potomac Speleological Club (PSC) was formed by eight charter members: Grayson Harding, Elbert Miller, Jerry Nettles, E. Thomas Pierce, Paul Damon, Byron Cassel, Wayne Bell, and Tom Tucker, to: “further promote general interest in speleology and its related sciences, and to explore caves for scientific information and to make known its findings which will be published each month.” The new group called its newsletter The Potomac Caver.
Early projects included the exploration of caves in Germany Valley, WV continuing a project started by the Pittsburgh Grotto and the Baldwin’s Hill project in the Front Royal, VA area (this project included exploration and mapping of caves in that area).
Original meetings were held in private homes until the club became too large. In September 1958 the club began to meet at the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation. At that point the club had 21 members. In January 1959, meetings were moved to that Department’s new building on Park Drive (the Lubber Run Recreation Center) and these meetings have continued there at the same time and place since then.
When the PSC was formed, it was hoped that the NSS would let the group become a grotto. The request was turned down because of an NSS policy allowing only one grotto per city. The PSC sought to become an NSS affiliate in 1958 by contacting Dr. Oscar Hawksley, NSS Vice-President for Organizations. This is different from actual grotto status inasmuch as: “an affiliate of the NSS is another independent organization whose aims and ambitions parallel those of the NSS.”
Most of the membership felt that the affiliation would be a great asset to the reputation of the PSC which was looked upon at this time by many old-time NSSers as an “outlaw” group. Affiliation was granted by Dr. Hawksley, however, the affiliation was not something PSC was to keep. Sometime later the NSS published a list of affiliated organizations, and the PSC was not included. A letter to the NSS asking why resulted in their name being included on the next published list. That was the last time the NSS admitted having granted the PSC affiliate status. For several years, the PSC was officially ignored by the NSS. Later, when the PSC decided to settle the issue, the NSS took official Board action to say that it was not their policy to grant affiliate status to any other American caving organization. The Board further stated that Dr. Hawksley had not had the power to grant such a status in the first place.
Through the years, pride has kept the PSC an independent group, even though it has supported the NSS and many of its members are also NSS members. The Virginia Region of the NSS (VAR) voted to grant the PSC membership in 1967.
The PSC took over the responsibility for the cavers’ Field House in Riverton, WV, in 1963 from the Pittsburgh Grotto. The house was run by Jerry Nettles until this function was turned over to an official committee of the PSC in the fall of 1969. The PSC Field House in Germany Valley was the focus for caving in Pendleton and surrounding counties in West Virginia. People staying at the Field House often found themselves called out for rescues of various severity. So many people were pulled out of nearby Hellhole cave that a cartoon appeared in the PSC Caver suggesting that forms requesting rescues be provided at the bottom of the entrance drop.
In 1976, the death of one of the owners of the PSC Field House caused the PSC to examine what they wanted out of a field house. The families could not agree on ownership of the house and forced it to be sold. Whether the club should try to buy the Germany Valley Field House that had been such a large part of the club, or to move operations closer to the active caving areas generated a considerable amount of controversy, heated discussions and some bad feelings. The controversy abated when the new owners of the house continued to rent it to the club. The Field House was the scene of much activity practically every weekend and many close associations were formed in the valley, especially with Mrs. Nellie Smith and Sheriff Estyl Lambert.
The PSC Field House near Riverton, WV continued to be a center for club activities in particular the survey of Hellhole Cave led by Bob Anderson and others. Following the disastrous flood in November of 1985 the Field House was used to support relief efforts and many PSC members helped out. In 1986 the owners of the Field House sold it and evicted the club. Fortunately another house was located in the Smoke Hole Gorge. The new house was more remote making it ideal for parties. The driveway, however, is occasionally impassable to two wheel drive vehicles in winter.
Through the years the PSC has become legally incorporated, manages the Field House, and is a member of both the Cave Rescue Network and the Highlands Conservancy. Members have provided major support for the annual Old Timers’ Reunion over Labor Day and used to be regularly involved in the Treasure Mountain Festival held in September in Franklin, WV.
A major project of the group was “SIMMER”, the ‘push’ expedition for exploring the area in and around Simmons-Mingo Cave in West Virginia. This was a VAR project in the fall of 1973. SIMMER attracted cavers from all over the region and was probably the most massively organized caving trip ever seen. The planning was led by Bob Lutz and it was estimated that time spent on planning and preparation exceeded time spent underground by a factor of ten to one. Teams were set up for exploration, in cave support, surface support, administration, and work in the Elk River area caves.
On the surface, communications, mess, shower, and camping facilities were provided. Underground, the exploration teams were provided with pre positioned supplies, camps, communications with the outside and support teams.
Although the expedition was not successful in that they did not find another entrance in the Dry Fork area, the cave was pushed further and much was learned about how to organize a large group of cavers for an extended period of time underground. Because the expedition was a Region project, this knowledge was widely dispersed among the cavers in the Region.
The PSC continued trying to find the back door to Simmons Mingo until May 1977 when a party finally made the connection to the back of Simmons Mingo cave from Oil Drum Falls Cave.
In 1982 the Simmons-Mingo Cave survey project was revived under the leadership of Linda Baker and monthly trips were organized. After a near disaster when Stan Carts’ van overturned on an icy road, Linda decided to forego winter trips and use those weekends for working on the data. The goal was to resurvey the entire cave using old surveys as a guide whenever possible. Several members of the previous effort became regulars on the new survey including Bob Thrun, Dick Sanford, and Stan Carts. Many new members became active in the survey some of whom had no previous survey experience.
In order to gain easier access to the far back regions of Simmons Mingo a new entrance was dug at Stan’s Blowing Rock. This entrance avoided the extremely tight places just inside the Oil Drum Falls entrance, though it wasn’t always pleasant as it frequently blew cold air and dripped water. Indeed! it was occasionally referred to as Stan’s Sucking Ice Hole.
The remains of the campsite left over from Project SIMMER had never been fully removed from the cave. During various trips much of the telephone wire was balled up and removed. However, it took many more trips, including a final sweep trip led by G. Brace and Lewis Carrol, to remove the bulk of the material from the camp and close the final chapter of Project SIMMER.
PSC members have been active in surveying Caves in Pendleton County, WV including the caves at Trout Rock. PSC members were in a large part responsible for the acquisition of the Trout Rock property for the NSS and were mostly opposed to the NSS’s trial closure of Trout Cave which ended in 1991. PSC had many participants in major cooperative projects to push and survey Friars Hole and Organ Cave in West Virginia. PSC members also joined in the resurvey of Paxton’s cave in Allegheny County, VA. PSC members have a long tradition of assisting in Region meetings, the Old Timers Reunion, and also assisted in the 1983 NSS Convention in Elkins, WV. PSC members have also provided labor for Fred Grady’s paleontology projects in Hamilton Cave, New Trout Cave, Cave Mountain Cave, and various other sites.
Nationally, PSC members have been significant participants in the survey and exploration of Roppel Cave, Mammoth Cave, and Fisher Ridge in Kentucky.
Internationally, PSC members have been active in the multi-year Jamaica Cockpits cave survey expeditions led by Mike DiTonto, in the Costa Rica project, and in a survey project in Chiapas, Mexico which has yielded an 8 km cave and many deep pits so far.
To date more than 600 people have become members of PSC and the club exchanges newsletters with over forty publications.