On February 29, 1964, Dr. Melvin Nida, a minister and theology professor at Salem College in Salem, West Virginia, wrote to the NSS asking for information on how to start a grotto. When told that he had to have five NSS members, Dr. Nida and his son, Larry, joined. They knew no one else interested in caving at the time, so Dr. Nida got three members of his congregation to join the NSS and help get the grotto started. These three people were not cavers, and they were never actively involved with the grotto. After writing a constitution, the group had to come up with a name. They considered various options, and finally settled on two they liked: the Salem College Grotto or The Monongahela Grotto. The NSS Grottos Chairman (J.S. Petrie) suggested that the name "Monongahela Grotto" was more appropriate because it was broader and "not limited to West Virginia" (and not limited to Salem). He also pointed out that since the grotto was not intended to be a student grotto,  "Salem College Grotto" didn't really fit what they were trying to do. In the end, in September 1964,  "Monongahela Grotto" was chosen as the name of the grotto. By the time the grotto was officially formed, it had picked up a few more members who were actually interested in caving. They informed the NSS that they planned to work on two projects: "to develop, place and maintain cave registers" and to "discover and preserve the early history of individual caves".

    In 1965, Dr. Nida and another grotto member attended the Spring VAR meeting in Washington, DC. At that time, Charlie Maus invited the grotto to work with WVACS to explore, map and conduct scientific studies of West Virginia caves. As far as we can determine, the only official involvement the grotto had with WVACS in 1965 was a trip to Bone Norman with a bunch of PSC and WVACS cavers. While camping that evening, there was some fairly rowdy partying going on. Dr. Nida and Larry severed their connection with the grotto shortly after that. They never cited the drinking and partying as the reason for their departure, but the few members left suspected that was the primary reason. The grotto nearly died. Fortunately, one of the original student members, Bill Biggers, had been a caver before transferring to Salem College, and he wanted to keep the organization going. He got one of his professors,  Dr. Francis Gilmore, to join and sponsor the grotto. (Thirty-eight years later, Doc Gilmore still occasionally attends grotto meetings and Bill Biggers, who now lives in Virginia, still camps with Mon Grotto during OTR.) In 1965, Bill Biggers and Lew Bicking found a second entrance in Big Springs Blowing Cave in Tucker County.

     By late 1966 interest in the grotto was fully revived. The grotto started a bi-monthly newsletter called the Karst Kaver in February, 1967. The first editor was supposed to be Wade Dodson, but the first issue didn't actually come out until October of 1967, and the editor was Sam Wymer. When Volume 1 Number 1 of the Karst Kaver was published there were 19 members of the grotto. They paid an exorbitant $2.50 a year for dues. Among other things, the grotto went caving that year at Breathing and Bone Caves. Because the grotto was mostly made up of students, they didn't meet in the summer in those days.

     There was a successful membership drive in 1968 and the grotto grew to more than 100 members. Those people were primarily from Clarksburg, Fairmont and Buckhannon (in North Central West Virginia). After that the meetings rotated between those three cities. A major focus of the grotto that year was the further exploration of Baxter's Cave (now called Walt Allan) in Pocahontas County. Bill Biggers, Skip Miller and the late Dick Bishop found a virgin 140' pit that was missed by the original surveyors. There was a narrow squeeze filled with rocks that the original surveyors didn't push. Biggers,  Miller and Bishop cleared the rocks as they went, passing them back hand to hand. The squeeze led to a 100 foot 2' by 3' crawl, which led to the pit. It pays to be curious. During the summer of 1968, the grotto rented a house from Bowden owner John Knutti and converted it into a field house. It was from that field house that the Bowden Survey started. During that year Kim Smith was the grotto president and became the editor of the Karst Kaver.

     In  early January of 1969, 69 Cave was discovered in Bickle Hollow. (That is, the Pit and Hillside Entrances of Bowden). Mon Grotto hosted the Spring VAR meeting on March 8th that year at The Purple Tree in Clarksburg. That same weekend the Schmidlin Caves in Randolph County were discovered by a group of 25 grotto members and friends.

     In spring of 1969, many of the active members of the grotto from Salem College graduated and departed, several of them going to Mexico for a last caving hurrah as active Mon Grotto members. The Karst Kaver ceased publication. A few members from Fairmont and Paul Richards, the president of the grotto at the time, held the grotto together. Richards began publishing the monthly Karst Kapers and a weekly Karst Quotes. In June of that year, Ray Garton and Dan Nigh began to extensively map Bowden. They first crawled through the Agony and discovered the MG Section on October 25, 1969. Lacking a publication in which to share the news, they started up the Karst Kaver again with themselves as editors. Discoveries kept on happening. Dan and Ray discovered the Windy Section of Bowden on December 7th. Seven days later, Ray, Dan, Dave Hubbs, Frank O'Hara, Paul Richards and Van Pell found the 3rd Entrance to Bowden.

     That same year the grotto started its survey of the northern counties of West Virginia with work in Preston, Monongalia and Marion Counties. The grotto celebrated its five-year anniversary on October 18th, 1969. The first part of the grotto celebration was held in the Big Room at Bowden. Dan Nigh designed the first grotto patch that year.


       The new decade started propitiously with the rediscovery by Ray Garton and Dan Nigh on New Year's Day of the Nutcrackers Suite and the discovery of a 17-foot deep pit that lead to what 5 days later would become the long-sought connection between Bear Heaven and Bowden. The connection was blown open with a half stick of dynamite. Surveying continued in Bowden. By the end of September it was the longest surveyed cave in Randolph County with 17, 571 feet of passage. Dan, Ray, and Van Pell connected the 69 Cave with Bowden on December 5th. The A-MAZ-ING section was discovered on the 30th. By the end of 1970 there were 21, 121 feet of surveyed passage. In the summer of 1970, Paul Richards resigned as chairman, and Ray Garton was elected to fill the slot. Inflation set in during 1970 and the dues were raised to $4.00 a year.    

     On January 16, while surveying virgin passage in the MG Section of Bowden, Ray Garton, Dan Nigh, Paul Richtor and Steve Callen found a large white fossil-like object on a piece of breakdown. They suspected that it was a tooth--a conjecture confirmed by paleontologist John Guilday of the Carnegie Museum. It was a mastodon tooth more than 10,000 years old. Two large rib-like bones were later found by Dan, Ray, Steve and Bob Bryan. The January-March 1971 edition of Karst Kaver published the results of the three and a half year long project. Read that report here. This year Joe Gonzalez started extensive exploration of Mystic and Roger Barody of WVASS gave the go-ahead to start the BUMP survey (BUMP=Barbour, Upshur, Monongalia and Preston Counties.)

         In 1972 the grotto gated Bowden because of the extensive vandalism that was occurring. Ray and Mary Ellen Garton started the Cornwell Cave Survey on Memorial Day weekend that year. The BUMP Survey added 14 new caves by the end of the year and had surveyed over 2 miles of passage in Cornwell. Twenty-six members of the grotto attended OTR that year. 

       The first issue of the Karst Kaver in 1973 was devoted to publishing a paper on the salamanders of West Virginia written by member Steve Carey. On Memorial Day Weekend 1973, a stream passage in Cornwell called the Wet Dream was surveyed by Ray Garton, Dan Nigh, John Sowers, and Donald Williams. In one fifteen hour trip they discovered over 1200' of virgin passage. On September 9, Ray and Mary Ellen Garton, Donald Williams, and Kenny Ashton found a new speleothem--the carbide dump stalactite. On October 6-8, the grotto hosted the Fall VAR meeting at Bowden. The ninth anniversary of the grotto was celebrated during the VAR. At the close of the year the length of Cornwell was 15,840 feet.

     In 1974 two now counties were added to the BUMP-O survey--Marion and Harrison Counties. Now it was the BUMP-OHM survey. The early part of the year was spent finishing up the Cornwell survey with a total of 18.016 feet or 3.41 miles. The grotto began helping at the New Paris, Pennsylvania bone digs being conducted by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Ray Garton received the annual Carnegie Museum Award at OTR.

            The main focus of the grotto in 1975 was the BUMP-OHM Survey, with a focus on Ohio County where many new caves were found and surveyed. A cut-off date of June 30 was set for new information and the BUMP-OHM Survey was brought to an end. Meanwhile, the Tucker County Survey was started by Doug Core, then passed to Alan Carpenter and Ray Garton. In April of that year they set up a field house in a very old eight room house on the Luke Mullenax farm in the Sugarlands. A lot of time and money went into the fieldhouse. The Fieldhouse was formed as a separate organization from the grotto with dues of $20 a year. The longstanding goal of reaching the passage at the top of the Cathedral Room in Bowden was almost realized by hauling an aluminum ladder through the Bear Heaven entrance. Alan Carpenter climbed it and was approaching the goal when the ladder collapsed. Luckily, Barry Baumgardner had him on belay.

          This year the grotto started a dig in Maiden Run in Monongalia County, but uncovered very little cave. Grotto member, Steve Carey, co-authored Caves of Mississippi, which was published this year. Bob Mobley was editor of the Karst Kaver.  The grotto did non-project caving in Pocahontas County, Monroe County, Pendleton County, Greenbrier County and Westmoreland County, PA. 


     In the first months of 1976, the BUMP-OHM Survey was finished up. It was published in June as Bulletin 5 of the West Virginia Speleological Survey. As the hosting organization of the 1976 NSS Convention in Morgantown, the grotto was also very involved in Convention business. Ray Garton was the editor of the Convention Guidebook. Both 76 and Lukes Cave were found In Tucker County and the grotto spent a great deal of time working on and hanging out at the field house. Because the membership was so scattered geographically, the grotto started meeting on the weekends at the field house. Steve Cary and Alan Carpenter were the editors of the Karst Kaver, which celebrated its 10th anniversary.

            In 1977 Monongahela Grotto and the Mountain State Grotto issued a combined newsletter called the Joint Controlled Karst Kaver with John Hiser as editor. The joint venture died after two issues and the Karst Kaver was resurrected with Ray and Mary Ellen Garton as editors. Not a whole lot was done in 1977. Ray Garton says, "We spent more time working on the Field House than we did caving." The Tucker County Survey hosted the 1977 Virginia Region Spring Project on Memorial Day in Canaan Valley. Several new caves were found, others re-found and some mapped. Thirty-five people from four states attended. Also, several members participated in the rescue of Jim Wright from Twiggs Cave--a rescue that involved over 400 cavers.

         In 1978 a series of events and misunderstandings led to a bizarre rumor among the some local Tucker County folks that the Monongahela Grotto was a devil worshipping cult. This rumor was taken very seriously in some quarters and was even preached about in at least one church. Two things apparently sparked the rumor. First, there was a pig roast at the Field House on the weekend of May 6th. Apparently some people from a distance thought a human baby was being roasted. Seriously. Then some local kids broke into the field house in June, probably because of the baby sacrifice rumors, and found a devil costume Ray had worn at a Halloween party and had left stashed under a bed. You have all these odd-looking outsiders who seem to like caves and bats engaging in strange activities in a house in the middle of nowhere roasting babies and dressing up in satanic costumes. Hmmm. They clearly must be devil worshipers. Kelly Deem, who lived in the area, approached the preacher in question and clarified things.

       In other news, John Sowers, who had been the Karst Kaver printer, moved away leaving the grotto with no way to print the Karst Kaver. The Gartons finally came up with an offset printing press and the first issue of the Karst Kaver came out in July. At OTR in 1978 picks, shovels, and jackhammers were used to try to open a new entrance to the MG Section of Bowden. A hole 4-feet wide and 10-feet deep was dug, but there was no breakthrough. Also at OTR the grotto participated with about 200 other cavers in a rescue at Bowden after Tom Brooks fell 25 feet and fractured his skull. This year grotto member Greg McDonald did some caving and looking for bones on the island of Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela, and grotto member Fred Grady went caving and looking for bones in Puerto Rico.

         1979 was a very active year. The Gartons took over a caving class at Salem College which resulted in numerous caving trips in Tucker, Randolph, and Pendleton Counties. The Tucker County Survey continued, trying to shake the devil worship rumors. Several new caves were found and surveyed. A bone deposit was found in New Trout Cave, which triggered monthly trips in which over 7000 pounds of matrix was removed. Over 60 taxa of mammals were identified by grotto member Fred Grady. Both extinct and extant forms were found. Carbon-14 dating put the age of the upper 3 feet of the deposit at 17,000-29,000 years ago. The grotto was in charge of the decorations for the Sunday night party at OTR. Kendell Free made a giant paper mache bat and spider. The grotto, along with other participants once again tried to dig into the MG Section of Bowden during OTR. Over a case of dynamite and other explosives were used. The hole got deeper and wider, but there was still no breakthrough.

            In 1980 Ray Garton, Mary Ellen Garton, and Alan Carpenter dug open a cave near Red Run Cave in Tucker County. The cave consisted of 200 or so meters of stream crawlway/stoopway heading toward Red Run Cave. The grotto was busy this year surveying Bob White Cave in Tucker County. Fourteen grotto members did a trash clean up at Laurel Caverns.


            In 1981 the Tucker County Survey's main effort was centered on the Red Run Survey. By early August over 1.2 kilometers had been surveyed. Eight grotto members went to the 8th International Congress of Speleology at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Those who went reported that it was a very rewarding experience. This year, the grotto printing press moved to Don and Joyce Humphrey's basement.

            The Red Run Survey was completed in 1982 with 1.536 kilometers of cave. Several small caves were also surveyed that year. The grotto had to move out of the old field house on the Sugarlands because the time and effort spent trying to keep it in a livable condition was no longer worth it. The new field house was at the junction of Red Run and Rt. 72 and had indoor plumbing. Don Humphrey, Dave Drach, Mike Satterfield, and Alan Carpenter participated in a rescue at Harmons Waterfall Cave. Dave Drach entered the "Ironman Triathalon" in Hawaii and finished 97th. He also won the five-mile Fun Run at OTR. (The Fun Run was sponsored by the Monongahela Grotto from 1982 through 1987.) Several grotto vertical sessions were held in Barrackville that year. In October 1982, the grotto joined with the Greenbrier Grotto to publish a joint newsletter. Greenbrier Grotto's George Dasher was the editor. The first issue of the West Virginia Caver, which grew out of the Mon Grotto/Greenbrier Grotto collaboration, came out in January 1983. The charter member organizations were Greenbrier Grotto, Monongahela Grotto, WVACS, Charleston Grotto, and WVU Student Grotto. It was published six times a year and was printed in Don and Joyce Humphrey's basement. George Dasher was (and still is) the editor.

         In 1983, Mon Grotto members Ray Garton and Fred Grady were instrumental in the purchase of the Trout Rock Caves by the NSS. By late fall, the whole thing was practically paid off. The purchase price was $30,000 or so. Four grotto members participated in cave rescue classes in Elkins this year. A contest was held for the design of a new patch design. Don Humphrey's design won and 100 patches were ordered. Among the caves visited in 1983 were the MG Section of Bowden, Harmons Waterfall Cave, Sites, Harr #2, Confluence, Coal Run, Sinks of Gandy, Stillhouse, Sharps, and Bonner Cave.

The NSS Convention was held in Elkins this year. Fred Grady, Ray and Mary Ellen Garton and Alan Carpenter all contributed to the Convention Guidebook. Several members attended. Don Humphrey and Mike Satterfield attended the NCRC cave rescue class at the Convention.

In this year the Big Springs Blowing Cave Survey topped one mile with a lot of known passage in the old section still unmapped. Ten caves were discovered in the Elklick area of Tucker County.

            1984 was an active and productive year for the grotto. There were grotto caving trips to Hellhole, Cornwell, Big Springs, Bowden, Red Run, the Trout Rock Caves, Blackwater Pit, and the Elklick Caves. The grotto had a booth at the Three Rivers Coal Festival in Fairmont. Members showed slides, explained equipment, and answered questions from the general public. Several members attended the NSS Convention in Wyoming. Alan Carpenter received a Fellow Award from the NSS.

October 8th was the 20th Anniversary of the grotto and a catered dinner was held in Worthington. Over 20 members attended. Ray and Mary Ellen Garton were awarded Life Memberships for their long and diligent service to the grotto and to the filed of speleology. Frank Keplinger, Ray Garton, Mary Ellen Garton, John Sowers, Dan Nigh, Doc Gilmore, and Joyce Pullam were honored for having over 15 years membership. Alan Carpenter was presented with a certificate of appreciation for his service to the Tucker County Survey.

Several beginners' trips were taken in the fall as a result of the Three Rivers Coal Festival display. The Tucker County Survey made good progress. Elklick Cave went to over a kilometer of passage and Big Springs topped the 2.1 kilometer mark--the old section was completed and the survey team started working toward the second entrance in August. During one surveying trip, Alan Carpenter and Don Humphrey found a baby mastodon tooth in Big Springs. There were several good finds made in the Elklick area that year. In spite of all that, the field house was given up due to lack of interest and money. At OTR, Dave Drach won the Fun Run for the third straight year and several grotto members began the tradition of participating in the annual rappel off the New River Gorge Bridge during Bridge Day.

            By 1985, the Tucker County Survey had 171 caves on file. The Elklick survey was completed with 1.022 kilometers of passage. Big Springs Cave was pushed to 2.267 meters (1.4 miles). A surface survey was done between the two Big Springs entrances, and a preliminary trip was done into the second entrance. It was obvious that very few people, if any at all, had gone into the second entrance since Bill Biggers found it 20 years earlier. On August 31, Bill Biggers helped Alan Carpenter with the recon of the second entrance. In this year, the survey of Blackwater Pit was started. The grotto picked up several new members from Ohio. During this year tourist trips were made to Sharps, Elkhorn Mountain, Bowden, Hellhole, and Bob White. During the June Hellhole trip, Alan Carpenter and Jerry King, with help from other grotto members, made a great photograph of the large room. (Click here to see it.) A poster sized copy was auctioned off at OTR that year. The grotto escorted two entomologists (Bob Acciavatti of the U.S. Forest Service and Bob Davison of the Carnegie Museum) to Bob White Cave in search of rare cave beetles. The West Virginia Caver, which had been joined by Parkersburg Area Grotto in 1984, was becoming the voice for West Virginia Caving organizations. It was being delivered to over 300 cavers throughout the eastern U.S. The grotto Christmas party was held at the home of JoAnn Chipps. Twelve members attended. The Great Trout Cave Controversy began in 1985 with the closing of the cave from September 1st through April 30th.


        The Tucker County Survey started 1986 with 173 caves on file. In January, several members went to Tucker County to check for damage done to caves during the Great Flood of 1985. Very little damage was done to caves, but several FRO caves opened up. Grotto members Jerry King, Tom Marlowe, and Alan Carpenter located and opened up three new caves in the Otter Creek area. On April 23, Jerry King and Alan Carpenter surveyed Bonner Pit. This year the official grotto address was changed to Alan Carpenter's house. In Big Springs Cave, the remaining passage between the second entrance and the old section was surveyed. The final assault took place on June 14. Mike Satterfield, Don Humphrey, Jerry King, and Alan Carpenter surveyed 311 meters of low, wet, swift stream passage in the Biggers Passage. This survey trip put the cave at 3.072 kilometers of passage making it the second-longest cave in Tucker County. The grotto installed West Virginia Cave Protection signs at Big Springs and Bob White. The grotto Christmas party was held at Lois Ekert's house with 10 members attending.

            1987 was probably the least active year for the grotto in the '80s. Very little progress was made in Tucker County and most of the grotto trips were tourist trips to better known caves. In late 1987, Joe Gonzalez, an early member of the grotto, rejoined and became quite active again. He brought several new members from Clarksburg with him. Grotto members led several cave trips for Boy Scout troops. 

       In 1988, Joe Gonzalez reactivated his 20-year-old survey of Mystic Cave. A public meeting was held in March in an attempt to attract unaffiliated area cavers into the grotto. Meetings were alternated between Cactus Jack's restaurant in Clarksburg and the Marion County Public Library in Fairmont. Many family-type caving trips were done this year, introducing interested people to caving. Joe Gonzalez led a trip to Poor Farm Cave. There were several grotto trips to Pocahontas County and Randolph County caves. John Sowers began his "Slimbuster" program at OTR cleaning the port-a-potties. The printing and collating of the West Virginia Caver was moved to John Sower's house and later to his parents' house in Fairmont. The Hellhole property was leased by the Germany Valley Limestone Company, bringing to an end the grotto's traditional yearly trek to the cave. A grotto trip to Sites Cave in early June allowed several new vertical cavers to get their feet wet. A covered dish dinner-meeting was held at Alan and Joann Carpenter's in July, with a vertical session preceding the dinner. A clean-up of Bowden Cave was done in July. In November, 23 grotto members did a through-trip of Organ Cave, going from the Lipps entrance to the commercial entrance. Because there were so many people the trip took eight hours. George Dasher led the trip. The grotto Christmas party was held in the home of Jean Wharton. Ten members attended.

            In April, 1989, a public meeting was held in Clarksburg. Four new members joined, adding some much needed youth to the grotto. The first Tucker County Survey meeting in several years was held on March 17th to assess the status of the survey and to set a date as a goal for publication. The date was OTR in 1993 (a goal that was not achieved). In early 1989 disaster struck the printing press and other means of printing the West Virginia Caver were pursued. 


This period hasn't yet been compiled.

Links to 2003-2007







The History of the Monongahela Grotto, Alan Carpenter, West Virginia Caver August, 1989 Vol. 7 No. 4 (Much of the above material came directly from this article).

A History of the Next Five Years 1975-1979, Ray Garton, Karst Kaver November-December 1979 Vol. 13 No. 6

Verbal communications with Bill Biggers, Ray Garton, Alan Carpenter and John Sowers

Thanks to Meredith Hall Johnson for editorial assistance on 1970 through 1989



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