Ruby Falls, one of the Southeast’s must see attractions, lay hidden 1120’ under Lookout Mountain until Leo Lambert discovered it in 1928. He knew he found something special and immediately began to turn it into a tourist attraction. Today, it’s part tourist trap, part Chattanooga icon and part testament to the spirit of discovery and childhood dreams.
We have been on caving expeditions deep in the Belizean rainforest and photographed attractions worldwide. All we wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two. We found a beautiful centerpiece attraction wrapped in many layers of fascinating stories.
Lookout Mountain Caverns
Lookout Mountain Cave is one of the longest caves in America with 2.481 miles of mapped passage. The natural entrance to the cave sits near the Tennessee River and is, or was, a straightforward horizontal cave entrance that has been known and visited since the ice age. (There were Pliocene bones found in the cave). It was mined for saltpeter (used to make gunpowder) and even used as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War. Even POTUS Andrew Jackson visited and was so impressed as to sign the walls.
Perhaps the most important visitor was Leo Lambert. Leo, like many Chattanoogans of the time, loved to explore Lookout Mountain Cave. His childhood playground was closed in 1905 when the Southern Railroad Company was forced to build a tunnel through Lookout Mountain which sealed the natural cave entrance.
Leo never gave up his dream of returning to Lookout Mountain Cave. He found investors and started drilling an elevator shaft 420’ down to main passage. Although this might sound like a pipe dream, the project was underway. Every day, the laborers dug deeper and deeper. The inched along digging 5’ a day until, at the 260’ mark. That is where the jackhammers plunged into a void that led to the magnificent Ruby Falls.
See Ruby Falls
When Leo heard about the breakthrough, he immediately set out to explore it. He and his partner dropped down the dark shaft and entered the unknown. The passage was only 18” high and 5’ wide but they were undaunted. Slowly, they crawled through the cold, wet passages. After three hours, the were able to stand up for the first time. After ten hours, they were the first living creatures to see Ruby Falls. Finally, seventeen hours later, the re-emerged into the outside world excited to share their discovery.
Who was the first person they took to the falls? Leo’s wife Ruby Lambert. I can imagine how that conversation went….
You’ve been gone for seventeen hours, where have you been?
Crawling through a 56 degree, underwater stream in 18” high passage. It was great, you need to see the waterfall at the end.
Sounds like fun, when can we go?
How about tomorrow
Actually, I can’t imagine that conversation ever taking place, yet Ruby went down three days later to see the falls for herself. What an amazing woman. When I think of women from the twenties, I imagine flapper dresses but this gal was hardcore. A fitting namesake for a beautiful place.
What Happened to Lookout Mountain Cave
Leo kept digging down the remaining 160’ down to his destination and opened up a tour route in 1930 but the tours only lasted for five years. In 1935, the last commercial tour stopped. In part, because Ruby Falls is so beautiful and unique but there was a darker reason – soot.
In 1961, Thomas Barr Jr led a scientific expedition to Lookout Mountain Cave. His team found, and mapped previously undiscovered passage. They also found nearly every up facing surface fouled with soot.
Not all cave passages are human passable. The railroad, which sealed the natural entrance, had a secondary entrance into the cavern and that dumped the engine smoke into the cavern.. Barr said this of the experience “”exploring of the cave is unpleasant because of the necessity of wading, crawling, climbing, and becoming covered with soot”.
Cave ecology is delicate and can’t recover from pollution and abuse. There is minimal air and water circulation and precise chemistry at work. Even the touch of human hands can stop flowstone from every growing again. There was no way this cave was more powerful than a locomotive.
In 2005, Tennessee Elevator Inspectors sealed or resealed the cave’s fate. They ordered the lower elevator shaft to be permanently closed. The Ruby Falls operators complied and sealed the passage. Since that day, nobody has entered Lookout Mountain Cave again.
Building a Tourist Destination
Malcolm Gladwell defines the tipping point as “”the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” In his book by the same name, he says “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Specifically, a social epidemic, like creating the tourist destination of Ruby Falls involves three types of peoples mavens, salesmen and connectors. Mavens are information specialists who connect us with new information like the lost cave of Lookout Mountain. Salesmen are persuaders who can get a project going. Finally are the connectors who have the ability to bring groups of people together.
Leo Lambert was the maven who envisioned building the elevator shaft and the salesman who formed Lookout Mountain Cave Company to dig the shaft. However, the pressures of the Great Depression was too much for the company and they went bankrupt.
The new ownership was the connectors. They began the See Ruby Falls campaign that permeated, not only billboards for hundreds of miles away, but also popular culture. When Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison write a song about you, you know you have been heard.
Ruby Falls Cave has been developed as well. They were one of the first commercial caves with electric lighting that has since been transformed into solar powered LED lights. The 18” high ceiling passage was dug out into cobblestone walking passage. The rock removed from the elevator shaft was used to build a replica 15th-century castle called Lookout Mountain Castle. Currently, there is a 20 million dollar expansion project running through 2020.
Other Tours and Trips
An adult ticket costs $19.95 you can package it together with Rock City or the trip play with Incline Railroad to save money. They also offer a Ruby Falls Haunted Caverns experience where makeup artists from The Walking Dead create a cast of characters that haunt the escape tunnel. Buzzfeed says it’s America’s fourth scariest tour. There are even people who claim the cave is actually haunted. If that doesn’t get your adrenaline pumping, you can try the Ruby Falls Zipline.
Today’s Ruby Falls tour takes just a little over an hour. A guide will gather you all at the bottom of the elevator and lead you on about a ½ hour walk through the cave. They will point out pools and speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, etc) that are passably ok. The passage is not quite wide enough for a wheelchair or strollers but you can walk around with ease. Your guide talks describes the cave history and points out particularly interesting formations. However, the reason everybody visits is Ruby Falls.
The Falls Room has nature crowd control. Each tour group enters when the light show starts and exits when the lights go down. The lights illuminating the falls change from blue to red to white. Groups shuffle closer and further from the base of the falls to avoid the cool mists and change their perspective. You have enough time to see the falls and take your pictures but don’t wait too long to get an clear frame.
After the falls, you are now a survivor. Your group shuffles back to the entrance returns to the surface. It’s a fun tour and the falls are an unique cave experience.
If you want to learn more about Chattanooga activities, including wild caving in the area, check out our Chilling in Chattanooga Guide to Good Times.
Disclaimer: Although our experience was complimentary, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own.