(blows dust from the belfry)
This past weekend my amazing wife and I celebrated our anniversary in our usual way; we picked a state park and slipped away for a weekend of hiking and relaxation. We’ve been doing this for a number of years now and this is the first time we’ve gone back to a park we’ve previously visited. The camp is Carter Caves State Park in eastern Kentucky and it offers several lovely trails, plenty of flora and fauna, and a number of cave tours.
There are also plenty of stories to be found, and where you find stories you find adventure seeds.
This early in the season they only have two of their cave tours open. One of these is the Cascade Cave, which is also one of the longest tours and features large chambers and impressive geological features. Cascade Cave is several miles from the park’s lodge and was originally privately owned, with people touring the system since the late 1800’s. This is an active, living cave system with formations still growing and water in abundance.
In the early 20th century the owners of Cascade Cave sought to take full advantage of the system as a tourist destination. First they excavated the entrance, which previously required people to crawl to reach the larger chamber beyond. This larger domed chamber they dubbed “the ballroom”, and making good on the name they would hold dances in it. During prohibition the ballroom took on another role, becoming a subterranean speakeasy.
During this era there was fierce competition to put on the longest and most impressive cave tour. The owners of Cascade realized that the system extended far beyond the Ballroom, so they carried out further excavations. Their efforts succeeded in opening up a much longer system of tunnels that include many beautiful features, including a section where the river flows in and continues to carve out the rock to this day. Occasionally the competition would take a dark turn, with cave owners hiring toughs to break into their rivals’ caves and commit vandalism, carving graffiti into the walls and shattering millennia-old formations, and there is some evidence of this happening in Cascade.
The owners also built a lodge on the surface, directly above the caverns. They sunk a hole down to the cave to use as a ventilation system. By opening up the connection they could draw up the cool air from the cavern, providing natural air conditioning to the lodge. They also sunk a pipe down through the same hole, which they used to pump sewage from the lodge through the cave and straight into the river.
They made one further attempt to expand the Cascade Cave tour, having realized that there were even more tunnels reaching deeper into the earth. However this time they used dynamite and the results were not what they’d hoped. Instead of opening the tunnels they caused a massive collapse, burying the deeper caverns for all time. It was a terrible mistake.
Or was it?
“they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”
-Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring
To the gamer’s mind this all makes perfect sense; opportunistic people delving into closed caverns, holding drunken revels in subterranean chambers, building a hall above the underworld realms and making use of it in such a crass fashion. All they need to do is name the lodge “Heorot” and we have the setting for a modern-day Beowulf.
Were the vandals really sent into the caverns by a bitter rival? Were they cultists out to shatter ancient seals that kept something imprisoned? Or were they incautious adventurers who came to stop the terrors from being unleashed; adventurers who tried and failed, then disappeared leaving no trace except for a disturbingly suggestive set of flow stone formations that an old guide swears weren’t there before. Was the misadventure with the dynamite really an attempt to open the deeper caverns? Or to seal in some subterranean horror, woken from the depths by people venturing too far beyond the sun-lit world.
That’s for your players to find out.