Road trip!

William J. Rhees, Chief Clerk, and Daniel Leech, Correspondence Clerk, stand outside the United Stat

It was July 1880 in Washington, DC and Smithsonian Secretary, Spencer Baird, had fled the city with his family for cool ocean breezes and to study the fishing grounds off the New England coast at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. For those left behind minding the Smithsonian Castle, it was probably hot, humid, and hellish in town and they were in need of relief. Luckily, the proprietors of some recently discovered caves had extended an invitation to the Smithsonian for a tour. So, at 8:35 on Monday morning, July 12, 1880, a party of researchers and staffers set out to Luray, Virginia.

According to the 1880 Annual Report, the party consisted of William J. Rhees, chief clerk; Daniel Leech, corresponding clerk; Dr. Charles A. White, archaeologist; Prof. Otis T. Mason, ethnologist; Prof. Frederick W. Taylor, chemist; Dr. Elmer R. Reynolds, ethnologist; Thomas W. Smillie, photographer; and Prof. James H. Gore, civil engineer. They travelled west past to Winchester, Virginia and, “after having selected quarters for the night,” attempted to explore the “Endless Caverns” four miles south, but were turned away by the proprietor. How disappointing. Nevertheless, Mr. Smillie managed to “secure some very fine negatives of the valley scenery.”

Portrait of Otis Tufton Mason (1836-1908), Date unknown, by Unidentified photographer, Black and whi

“After a night of refreshing sleep” they enjoyed a, “most romantic ride over the Massanutton Mountain to Luray” taking in the scenic beauty of the valley along the way. Once in Luray, they selected lodgings, “ate a sumptuous dinner,” donned old clothes and set out on their ride to the caverns. Upon arrival, they were met by their guide B. P. Stebbins (co-discoverer of the caverns) and outfitted with tin candle frames to light their way and coats to help them “sustain the shock of a sudden change in temperature from 96 to 56 [degrees F]. “

The account in the 1880 Annual Report is more a romantic travelogue than a dry recitation of scientific facts. For example, “[t]here is nothing more beautiful in the cave these, scarves, shawls, lambrequins—what shall we call them—of translucent calcite, … falling in graceful folds, fringed with a thousand patterns, and so thin that a candle behind one of them reveals all the structure within.”

A clip from the Smithsonian Annual Report, 1880, Click to read more on Google Books.

The Smithsonian visitors made allusions to the need for further scientific study, noting (with no further elaboration) in their report that “a peculiar combination of circumstances precluded a more scientific examination of the Luray Cavern.” It is clear, however, that the party were there as  tourists (it’s how they describe themselves), who enjoyed the many courtesies extended to them by the cavern’s proprietors, “the citizens of Luray, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company.” But it left me wondering….what, if anything, came of this junket?

Stalagmite from Luray Caverns, Virginia, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Mineral S

Well, Mr. Stebbins received several photographs of the caverns made by Mr. Smillie and eventually the Smithsonian received a 1,000-pound stalagmite for the collection (catalogue # 116663 69: currently on display at the National Museum of Natural History). Also, the Henry-Baird Column was named in honor of the first two Secretaries of the institution. Today, however, it is known as the Double Column and it is found in the Giant’s Hall.


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