Colossal Cave Mountain Park
DescriptionMuch of Arizona’s history pivots on transformative events and people. Nestled in a picturesque valley east of Tucson, Colossal Cave Mountain Park's natural history and modern identity can be attributed to three such transformations - first by mother nature, then by the brawn of young men on a mission and finally by the marketing savvy of a man with a vision.
TranscriptNarrator: Much of Arizona's history pivots on transformative events and people. Nestled in a picturesque valley east of Tucson, Colossal Cave Mountain Park's natural history and modern identity can be attributed to three such transformations: first, by mother nature...then by the brawn of young men on a mission...and finally by the marketing savvy of a man with a vision.
Bill Peachey: This cave formed at least before 10 million years ago and maybe as early as 20 million years ago. The whole cave is a fossil. And as there's a life span to most things, there would be young caves, there would be mature caves, and old caves, this is an ancient cave. Today, the most startling thing that most people see is that the cave is totally dry.
Narrator: Native Americans used the cave for centuries. Bats continue to inhabit it. But what nature created over millions of years, modern man transformed over a few short decades.
Sharon E. Hunt: The cave was discovered in 1879 by a local rancher. His name was Solomon Lick, and he was out looking for some of his cattle, and he noticed this hole in the ground. The entrance to the cave was more like a slit. People would have to squeeze through it.
Bill Peachey: Of course, at that time there were no lights and no trails. They only had candles. And so you can imagine trying to carry a candle into a cave and climbing with your other hand, one hand holding the candle.
Sharon E. Hunt: There was no organized tourist activity until Frank Schmidt came in the early 1920s. He really wanted to develop the cave. He realized in its current state, he was not going to be able to run a lot of tourists, make a lot of money out of it, so he negotiated with the state to give up his grazing leases around the area and turn it over to the county. It became a government entity instead of a private entity.
Narrator: The new legal status made the property eligible for improvement under Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps program, which provided jobs and conservation on a national scale. From 1934 to 1937, CCCers transformed the park and themselves.
Sharon E. Hunt: The CCC boys were boys. They were in their late teens to early 20s, they were unemployed, they were usually uneducated. They made $30 a month. Twenty-five dollars of that was sent back to their families. They enlarged the entrance, they dynamited out passageways, they widened passageways that were already there, they laid down the trails with stones, they put in the handrails, they put in the lighting; they made the cave accessible to tourists. The CCC wanted to have the buildings look as if they just blended in to the natural landscape, so they used rock from right here at the site. They did not have the machinery that they would've had today; they used wheelbarrows, they used pickaxes, and they had to literally drag -- bucketful by bucketful, they had to drag the rock and the dirt out of the cave using the access shaft that went into the center of the current trail.
Narrator: When the workday ended, the Colossal Cave CCCers kept busy around camp in numerous ways.
Sharon E. Hunt: They had a baseball team, they had a recreation hall where they had a radio, a library, they played checkers, they played dominoes. There was also an educational program, and they could take classes in reading and writing and English, radio operation, blacksmithing, all kinds of academic as well as practical job-skill classes. I think the most important legacy that the CCC left behind is the quality of the work that they did: the buildings that they built at Colossal Cave and the work that they did inside the cave endures today, 70 years later.
Narrator: Thanks to the CCC, Colossal Cave became accessible to large numbers of tourists for the first time. They laid trails and installed over half a mile of lighting. Three hundred sixty-three steps take visitors down and back over six and a half stories. The physical changes in and around the cave allowed a visionary leader to transform its revenue-generating uses beyond just tours.
Sharon E. Hunt: When Joe Maierhauser came to Colossal Cave in 1956, he set to work marketing the cave, and because he had Hollywood connections, he chose to have films filmed here as well as a photo contest in the late '50s and early '60s. The most notable film -- and they were all horrible films -- was The Night of the Lepus, where giant mutant rabbits ravaged the countryside and hid out in the cave.
Narrator: Tourists enjoyed tales of 19th-century train-robbing bandits who supposedly occupied the cave and whose ill-gotten gains may still be cached within it. Joe actively promoted the legend. But land development rather than bandits posed the biggest threat to the park's existence in the latter half of the 20th century.
Martie Maierhauser: We started getting concerned about losing what a wonderful place. We really started thinking about -- dreaming more about wouldn't it be wonderful, how much of this do you think we could protect?
Narrator: Through a series of land acquisitions, the park property expanded to 2,400 acres with grazing leases on another 5,000 surrounding acres. Today, the park's diverse offerings surprise many visitors.
Martie Maierhauser: When people come here, 90% of them probably come here to see the cave. A good percent of people have no idea what else we have to offer. La Posta Quemada Ranch is now part of the park. It's still a working ranch. It's been a working ranch since the late 1870s. We have installed two museums down here, one which deals with caving, and a regular historical museum about the history of the area here, and a CCC museum. It's really dedicated to the young men who really made all this possible.
Narrator: Mother Nature, hard work, and vision at just the right moments by just the right people transformed Colossal Cave Mountain Park from a barely noticeable slit in the ground to an Arizona treasure.