Potomac Speleological Club

Excerpts from ‘History of the VAR’

The following excerpts have been preserved from the now-defunct website “The Virginia Region”, and are collected from various historical publications.

From Sinnett to Thorn

The July 1956 NSS features an article by Burton Faust describing the salt petre works of Sinnet Cave, WV. On their first trip to the cave, the party was led by a local resident who had told Burton of a cave in which there was a room half a mile in length. Picking their way along a well defined path in a head-high, tunnel-like passage, the group stopped at a large table-like rock. The guide explained that this was known as “Rail Rock.” Behind the adjacent wall, at the base of a high cleft. was the point to which the petre dirt landed when the miners dumped their loads from the big room high above. It was then bagged here and carried to the surface.

After crawling, climbing and canyon-straddling, they arrived at the bottom of a steep sloping climb. After boosting each other up, and up, and up the “silo”, one man anchored a safety line so that the equipment could be hauled up. Moving over several breakdown, they found in a room with the ceiling so distant as to give an illusion that they were at the top of a mountain covered by a dark, cloudy sky. In exploring the room, they found that a more or less straight path stretched along the long axis of the room. To the left was a huge bank of earth 40 feet wide, over 100 feet long and of undetermined depth. Opposite this, to the right of the long axis were two large pits which had served the petre miners as hoppers through which they had dumped the mined cave earth to “Rail Rock.” In order to get a better perspective of the size of the room the group left burning candles along the long path. It was an awesome sight to see the flickering candles stretching into the distance; the room was named “The Hall of the Mountain King”. Measuring the room it was found to be 870 feet long, 80 to 100 feet wide, and an estimated 80 feet high.

The Annex

Bill Nelson, THE CAVALIER CAVER, vol. 2, 1960

Sinnet Cave, Pendleton County, is quite a place. It has attractions for almost all classes of cavers. The cave has a long history, local legend even extending knowledge of its passages to the Indians. It is a saltpetre cave, and was extensively mined during the Civil War. Mattock marks are still visible in some of the damper sections of the wall, although much of the cave is dry and dusty.

Much exploration has been carried on in the cave; behind the waterfall, under the breakdown in the back of the Big Room and, recently in the “alcove” of the Hall of the Mountain King.

In the north wall of the Hall is an opening with an easy climb from the floor. The opening leads to the “alcove”, a hallway with a hole in its side, running parallel to the Hall, and 15-20 feet from it. Several years ago air flow was noticed in this alcove, and traced to a half-inch by five inch crack, at floor level, at the west end of this passageway.

Members of the Yale Speleological Society started to dig out this crack, but stopped before much progress was made. They left a sign saying “keep digging”.

in the fall of 1958 a group from the Richmond Grotto was appraised of the situation, and in November, descended on the hole with shovels and mattocks. A hole in the clay floor three by five by five feet deep was dug, and a horizontal shaft perpendicular to the wall extended for five feet. After removing many cubic feet of clay, dust and good-sized rocks, hammering the end off a piece of breakdown, and cleaning out a four by four by one and a half foot room, a crack was enlarged from six to nine inches wide. The Sinnett Annex was opened.

Virgin cave! Or, at least it seemed to be, as the Dugway was obviously untraversed. In the room, however, footprints were found. There were five, about the size of a #11 boot, and obviously very old. They were quite shallow and partially dusted in. They were unnoticed and unfortunately obliterated by the second party into the Annex.


Harry N. Giles, THE CAVALIER CAVER, vol. 4, 1962

On February 14, 1960 a mapping party from the UVA Grotto used a transit and steel tape to map Sinnett from a base station in the Big Room to the furthest point of penetration in the Annex. Additional mapping was done until February 1961 when Sinnett was mapped from the base station to the entrance. Then on December 17, 1961, using a tripod-mounted Brunton and steel tape, cavers mapped from the entrance of Sinnett to a point near the end of Thorn Mountain Cave.

Upon completion of the map, a section in Thorn Mountainwas determined to be not more than fifteen feet from Sinnett. On February 25, 1962, a group led by Karl Geil entered Sinnett, and proceeded to the end of the Annex. Another group led by Bill Nelson went to a designated point in Thorn Mountain Cave. First, vocal contact was made, and later physical contact was made by Geil and Nelson. The breakthrough was not attempted due to extreme danger from collapsing breakdown.

Thorn Mountain

Carol Luke (now Logan), the POTOMAC CAVER, Vol. 6, no.4, April 1963

On 23 March 1963, six PSC members visited Thorn Mountain Cave. It is located on Thorn Mountain above Sinnet Cave, and the two are believed to connect. To reach the cave one must ascend through a rather steep pasture area. This particular group of dedicated cavers had a glorious snowball encounter during the march.

The entrance is vertical for about 15 feet, and then becomes a very steep slope. A handline is most helpful on the slope. The vertical portion is climbable, with the help of a chest prusik. I think this cave is the prettiest I have seen thus far. The walls in a large portion of the cave are covered with dog-tooth spar calcite crystals. They are so abundant that it is difficult to walk by without breaking some off. While we were there, I collected a few fossils which had been requested by the Smithsonian. Two of them were rare specimens, and the museum was quite happy to receive them.

Later, at least 40 persons attended a ‘New Year’s Eve type party’ at the Fieldhouse. A good time was had by all, though I did not see anyone traverse the walls which is a usual occupation. We did find out that Steve Emery and Dave Harvey are Heidi Bread fans, as they occasionally broke into singing the ditty that goes “My favorite bread’s Heidi, etc.”… Steve plays a rather mean guitar, and has quite a repertoire of folk songs.


THE CAVALIER CAVER, 1962 Sinnett and Thorn, page 149, chapter 1, Discovering West Virginia, Virginia Region History from 1962 to 1979

Sinnett and Thorn Mountain Caves officially exist as a cave system. With the intent of surveying the damage caused by a recent collapse of breakdown between the two caves, Earl Geil found on, July 15, 1962 the crawl up to the alcove completely blocked by small dangerous breakdown. After several hours of removing rocks, and passing them back to a companion, Earl was able to make a V-shaped passage through the breakdown about ten feet long by two feet high. Removal of more breakdown enabled them to squeeze through into the alcove.

Examination of the alcove revealed that several tons of rock now filled an area where Earl had once sat and shook hands with cavers in Thorn Mountain Cave through the original connection, a few months earlier. Again, a warning: both passages leading to this area from both caves are very Dangerous and should be attempted only by experienced cavers.