DC Grotto Celebrating 70 Years of Organized Caving in DC

by Ed Devine, November 2009

DC Grotto is celebrating more than 70 years of organized caving in DC.  We are now more than 70 years old!  Well, … sort of …  It gets complicated …

To celebrate, we will soon be selling a 70th Anniversary of Organized Caving in DC tee shirt currently being designed by Keely Owens and Dusty Gulden.

Our roots apparently go back as early as 1930, when our founder (and NSS founder), Bill Stephenson became active with a young people’s Sunday afternoon hiking group at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC1.  During their hikes, they found and explored a few easy caves using flashlights and candles and thus got the caving bug.  Inspired, in part, by a 1939 illustrated Washington Star article on commercial caves and documented descriptions of organized caving in Europe, Stephenson and others advertised in the Washington newspapers for interested members to form the DC Speleological Society, which was shortly thereafter formally renamed the Speleological Society of DC (SSDC)2.  This group is essentially our founding organization.

DC Grotto is the sole surviving co-founding Grotto of the NSS, which Bill Stephenson and others founded in 1941.  There were only two founding groups – DC Grotto and the now-defunct New England Grotto, so we are clearly the oldest existing Grotto (followed in 1943 by VPI Grotto and Richmond Grotto, and in 1945 by Cleveland Grotto … the NSS Grotto count now exceeds 450!).  Stephenson and Clay Perry, in Massachusetts, struck up a deal at the NSS founding – New England Grotto would get to be Grotto No. 1, but the DC cavers would get the lowest NSS numbers.  It seems apparent from the old documentation that the NSS founding was more a push by the DC group rather than a joint DC-Massachusetts effort, and the earliest NSS office (Stevenson’s house) and administration remained in the DC area.

Thus, the SSDC became the NSS in 1941.  It is very clear that in 1941 the NSS was far too small (less than 150 members) to be Grotto-centric, as is currently the case, so the DC cavers did not apparently see much distinction between the local caving club and the “national” group.  Hence, there are few distinct DC Grotto publications or other artifacts from these early days.  In fact, the earliest copies of the NSS Newsletter  (the predecessor to the current NSS News) are mimeographed issues of a few hand-typed pages that read rather like Grotto newsletters with descriptions of trip plans and trip reports involving easy Virginia caves3.

So the early histories of DC Grotto and the NSS are too tightly entwined to be separated, and we both can claim our organized start in 1939.   But, formally, we really can’t claim that DC Grotto is older than its establishment as an NSS Grotto in 1941.

Now, to further complicate things, Cleveland Grotto currently claims on its website to be the oldest ACTIVE Grotto in the NSS.  That may be correct, because the DC cavers were largely inactive during much of World War II.  In fact, all caving groups throughout the country were tightly constrained (in terms of meetings and actual cave trips) during these years as the nation totally focused itself on conduct of the War.  Young people were away in the military, and extreme gas/tire rationing at home would have made it difficult to engage in “frivolous” travel such as cave trips or even trips to attend local cave club meetings.  Bill Stephenson, who was a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent Office, found himself transferred temporarily to Richmond (where he helped found Richmond Grotto), so cave club activity severely waned in the DC area.  However, administration of the NSS continued in DC, apparently maintained by John Petrie, and a few others, who remained in the DC area.  So caving did not completely die in DC during the War and DC cavers did again become again sometime during 19441 .  Cleveland Grotto also claims caving activity since 1944, so if they are the oldest ACTIVE NSS Grotto, its must only be by a few weeks or months …  However, DC Grotto will remain the oldest CONTINUOUS NSS Grotto.

References:

  1.  Damon, P.H., ed., 1991, Caving in America; the Story of the National Speleological Society, National Speleological Society, ISBN 0-9615093-7-6.
  2.  Bulletin of the Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, Vol I, June, 1940, Speleological Society of the District of Columbia, reprinted 1955.
  3.  NSS Newsletter, Vol. II, No.1, Jan, 1944, National Speleological Society.