Wall of Signatures 📸 Mike Bishop
Wall of Signatures 📸 Mike Bishop

Kingston Saltpeter Cave Nature Preserve


Bartow County, Georgia

The Kingston Saltpeter Cave Nature Preserve in Bartow County, Georgia, is home to 40 acres of hardwood forest which are teeming with wildlife. The Preserve is located almost entirely on and along the flanks of a large isolated dolomite knob, providing an incredible vista in all directions. Outcroppings of the Knox series of dolomite dot the lanscape, accompanied by an array of multicolored jasper, but the focal point of the Preserve is Kingston Saltpeter Cave.

Kingston Saltpeter Cave is a major Pleistocene site with fossil remains of 164 taxa. It is also the type locality of a blind, white millipede, Scoterpes austrinus nudus. In addition to Kingston Saltpeter Cave, the Preserve also contains Cedar Hole, a rapidly forming pit and several beautiful circular sinks, as well as prehistoric Native American and American Civil War sites.

In late 1983 the Felburn Foundation acquired the property to preserve, maintain, and protect it for future generations. The NSS manages the cave under an agreement with the Felburn Foundation who are primarily responsible for the acquisition, improvement, and maintenance of the cave and property.

Mining at Kingston Saltpeter Cave began as early as 1804, by a William Nicholson who rented the cave from the Native Americans for a price of two hundred pounds of powder annually. By 1809 the mining operation had come under the ownership of a William Reed, who lived close to the cave at that time, but due to an altercation that resulted in a murder his operation ceased about a year later. Although there are no extant records of mining during the War of 1812, there is evidence that suggests that some use of the cave was made for that purpose then, as well as intermittently during the mid-1800s. It was in support of the Confederate cause, though, that the cave gained its greatest fame.

There were many saltpeter caves located throughout the South during the Civil War, principally in the Virginias, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. While some of the operations were larger than that at Kingston, the fact that this cave was situated so far south contributed to its importance, as it was still in operation long after others had been destroyed by the Union forces. A report dated July 31, 1862 stated that in the spring of that year all important saltpeter caves in the country, except for the one in Bartow County, were in Federal hands.

Referenced at the time as “Bartow Cave,” “Bartow Saltpeter Works,” or simply “Saltpeter Cave,” the cave was producing saltpeter at the time hostilities began, but at a quantity deemed too low. Consequently, on June 14, 1862 the Confederate government seized the property, and production at the cave increased. Army conscripts and slaves were utilized for labor, as many as 233 shown for one month.

On May 17, 1864 General William T. Sherman noted in his personal narrative that ". . . [General] McPherson . . . was about five miles to my right rear, near the ‘nitre caves' . . . " Then, early on the morning of May 19th, the saltpeter operation having been deserted by the workers, Federal troops converged on the cave. Brigadier General Kenner Garrard wrote that “the works at Saltpeter Cave are extensive and in good running condition.” The works were destroyed by his troops the following day. Three days later a soldier in the 4th Army Corps would write in his diary, “We pass[ed] the smoking ruins of an old powder mill, which has been used for the manufacture of that article."

Today the cave stands in mute testimony to its part in the war. With the production facilities having been located on the surface outside of the cave rather than within the cave as they were at many other sites, all vestiges of that industry are now gone; what wasn't either destroyed in place or carted off by the Union troops has since rotted away. Piles of leached tailings are yet visible a short distance from the cave's mouth. Inside, nearly every area of the cave was worked for the nitrous earth and evidence is even now apparent. Indication of the cave's original floor level, which had been lowered in many places by digging, can still be seen. Passages and rooms that have been dug out; pick marks in the cave earth; tally marks on the walls, recording quantities of earth removed; large piles of “sift stones” that remained after mining; drill marks in rocks from the use of explosives; and several torch fragments all attest to the former mining activity in the cave. One remaining cast iron kettle from the cave, whose provenance has been established, is on display in nearby Euharlee.

Local tradition holds that before they left the cave workers hid tools, weapons and ammunition in a passage in the cave and blasted the passage shut. Extensive searching for such a place within the cave by this writer and others has been unsuccessful.