Sealed deal: City leaders want to close downtown cave

CHARLES TOWN – In its heyday nearly a century ago, Lakeland Cavern — a limestone cave formed beneath downtown Charles Town — was a popular destination and the scene of boat rides and dance parties.

[cleeng_content id="725247861" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Closed to the public since the 1930s, the entrance to the cave has been exposed with the recent demolition of the onetime Liberty Street Cafe, but Charles Town officials say the plan for now is simply to close the entrance once again, unless a commercial cave operator comes forward to run it.

The cave was discovered in April 1906 by workers building a livery stable, according to “A History of Jefferson County, West Virginia” by Millard Kessler Bushong, and was developed for commercial use by area machinist-turned-businessman Charles Weller, who named it Lakeland Cavern for the small underground lake at the end of the grotto’s 115-foot main passage.

City Manager Joe Cosentini said the city plans to seal off the cave because it presents the town with a legal and insurance liability. “If we didn’t have a liability issue we’d take people down there, but it is too big a project for us to undertake right now,” he said.

“It’s a liability for us having the cave there and having the building over it,” Cosentini said. “It was a barrier to getting the place rented and having some sort of useful purpose there.”

The entrance will be sealed in a way that will allow it to be reopened if need be, Cosentini said.

“We are not filling in the cave or anything like that,” he said. “It will be a bolted down steel entrance. We are going to secure the entrance so that we still have access to it but there will be no public safety issue.”

Cosentini said the town remains open to using the cave for commercial tours, though no interested operators have come forward.

“If somebody was serious about it and approached us about it we would help out,” he said, though he added that “we don’t know anybody in particular.”

The city plans to build a small outdoor seating area with a few picnic tables on the site where the building stood. Cosentini said the city made the decision to demolish the building around six months ago.

“We had a structural engineer come in and do an evaluation of the building to see if we were able to rehab it,” Cosentini said. “They came back and said it would probably cost more than its worth to rehab it and turn it into anything that would generate any income. The best bet that we had was to go ahead and raze the property.”

The city has owned the building for decades. It has been used as a bakery, arcade, taxi stand and restaurant over that period.

A video of the history of the cave was produced by Jim Surkamp in the 1990s and was later uploaded to YouTube. Surkamp said the video proved very popular.

“I have 290 videos, and for some reason I don’t understand it is by a wide margin the most viewed, with no effort,” Surkamp said. “It means people are intrigued by caves.”

“There is this eagerness to do something about the cave fueled by people who remember it from their childhood and people who are cave enthusiasts,” he said, adding he supports the town’s decision to seal it for now. “It is very reasonable to see the town make this decision. It is not a fun decision, but it might be well-founded.”

Surkamp’s video recounts a brief period in the late 1920s and early 1930s when Weller had opened Lakeland Caverns for commercial purposes and recounts the time a high school dance was held there.

The commercial caving operation left the cave significantly altered. Much of the floor was covered with gravel to level it off, a wishing well was dug out in one location and lights were strung along the roof.

The water in the cave was found in 1997 to be contaminated with diesel fuel-like compounds, in concentrations that are about five times the Department of Environmental Protection’s action level, according to a report authored by George Dasher.

In the late 1970s a heat pump was installed in the cave to serve the building above, according to a 1984 book quoted by Dasher.

That book, Caves of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia written by cavers Bob Gulden and Mark Johnsson and published by the West Virginia Speleological Survey, disputes persistent rumors that the cave extends much farther than 200 feet.

“On May 27, 1979, a pair of divers checked the [underground lake] using scuba gear,” it states. “The passage continues for some 40 feet underwater, gradually tapering down in size to the point that it becomes impassable. The cave definitely does not continue to the north.”

Surkamp said he has spoken with individuals who reported that others who had explored the cave when it was still open who claim it connects to an opening near Flowing Springs.

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