Natural History Meets American History in the Shenandoah Valley
On a Aug. 13, 1878, a small, entrepreneurial group of explorers discovered what would become known as Luray Caverns. The group, made up of the town tinsmith and other local men, had been looking for a cave that summer—so much so that townsfolk had dubbed them the “Phantom Chasers.”
Until that hot, summer day, they’d had no luck, and at least one man was ready to give up on the quest. However, as the story goes, they decided to give it one more try. That’s when one of the men, in an area that had already been explored, felt cold air rushing from the ground.
What they found beneath the surface were great rooms full of stalactites and stalagmites and an underground lake reflecting the formations like a giant mirror. What they also found was a natural marvel that would attract people from all over the world.
“We were very fortunate early on,” John Shaffer, public relations director for Luray Caverns, said.
“The Smithsonian sent a team to work on it. A writer from the New York Herald came down. Trains were beginning to take hold in eastern America and many excursions came, bringing people from the northeast.
It became very popular early on.”
Since then, Shaffer said, “10s of millions” of people from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries have visited Luray Caverns. On a single day in the 1880s, there were 10,000 visitors. According to Shaffer, it’s the most-visited, ticketed attraction in Virginia and the “fourth largest cavern in the country.”
Guided tours of the privately-owned caverns are offered seven days a week and last about an hour. Visitors travel as far as 160 feet beneath the earth’s surface and see countless formations, some of which are millions of years old and take hundreds of years to grow a single inch.
Each tour ends with a performance by the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The massive lithophone—think glockenspiel or xylophone—was created by Leland Sprinkle in 1954. Rubber mallets gently strike stalactites and stalagmites to make 37 perfect tones.
While the instrument can be played like a pipe organ, it’s usually operated by an automated system. The organ’s playlist includes Sprinkle’s favorite song, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
But the wonders in Luray, population 4,000, don’t end there.
A caverns ticket also includes admission to The Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, located near the caverns. There, visitors will find a dazzling array of antique cars, horse-drawn carriages and other conveyances. “Some of the most iconic cars,” as Shaffer put it.
On the self-guided tour, there’s everything from a primitive 1840 Conestoga wagon to a flashy 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost once owned by silent film star Rudolph Valentino. Other highlights include a 1727 Portuguese Nobility Carriage, touted as the “oldest carriage on display in the western hemisphere,” and a Baker electric car, made in 1908.
The ticket also is good at the Luray Valley Museum, located a short walk from the caverns. There, the museum and its adjacent historic village tell the story of the Shenandoah Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the museum, there are exhibits on Native American, African-American and Civil War history, along with a collection of 18th- and 19th-century cast-iron wood stoves. The “plate stoves,” as they’re called, are decorated with animal, biblical and other themes.
Visitors also will see pottery, painted blanket chests, hand-painted and lettered birth and death certificates, samplers, quilts, printing presses, tools and other items that were part of Shenandoah Valley pioneer life.
Outside, visitors will find a host of 19th-century buildings, among them a meeting house, blacksmith’s shop, farm house and African-American schoolhouse. The buildings were moved from various parts of Virginia and reconstructed in Luray. There’s also a cafe, which offers food and Shenandoah Valley wine, and a gem mine for the kids.
When leaving the caverns area and heading into Luray proper, it’s impossible to miss the most prominent landmark in town, the Luray Singing Tower. Inside the 80-year-old tower is a 47-bell carillon—think church bells—that’s played by a musician called a “carillonneur.”
Free concerts are held regularly, summer and fall.
The two-mile-long Hawksbill Greenway is a popular place in Luray to enjoy the outdoors and spot birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Trail users have reported seeing several varieties of herons, kingfishers and other birds, along with muskrat, beaver and mink.
Hawksbill Creek, from which the greenway gets its name, is a “Class A” trout stream, stocked with trout from October through May. Licensed fishermen may fish the creek year-round. There’s also a youth trout-fishing tournament held each April. The event reportedly draws hundreds of children and spectators.
Numerous other events are held along the greenway each year, including evening concerts in the summer and a Turkey Trot footrace on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
Along the greenway and on some buildings and structures in Luray, visitors will see colorful murals. The murals are painted by school children and local artists. “It’s still an ongoing project,” Jeff McMillan with Luray Downtown Initiative, said, adding the murals are a way “to make your town unique.”
While Luray is only about two hours from Lynchburg, there are many lodging options for those planning a multi-day visit. One is the Mimslyn Inn, which began welcoming travelers in 1931. Caverns PR director and Luray native Shaffer told a story about the Mimslyn, more specifically about one of its famous visitors.
According to Shaffer, in the summer of 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, were in Luray to dedicate nearby Shenandoah National Park. The president announced he would be camping in the park, or as Shaffer put it, “in a beautiful presidential tent.”
Having none of it, Eleanor told her husband she would be staying at the Mimslyn.
At the Mimslyn, guests may stay in one of two “Roosevelt Suites.” There also are standard guest rooms, cottages and the “Manor House,” which sleeps 20. The inn has two restaurants—Circa ’31 and the Speakeasy Bar & Restaurant—both of which have a Prohibition-era theme. The Speakeasy also has live music several times a month.
At Hawksbill Trading Company, located on Virginia Avenue next to the railroad tracks, shoppers can buy local arts and crafts, produce and baked goods, and decorative, antique and vintage items.
The cooperative and business incubator opened in January 2016. There are currently more than 40 vendors, a number that co-op president Jay North said “keeps growing every day.” Hawksbill Trading Company is open seven days a week, and there are open-air farmers and crafters markets on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
History buffs will find much to love about Luray and the surrounding area. In addition to the Luray Valley Museum, there are numerous Civil War Trails markers in the area. One of these markers is located at Willow Grove Mill, a large, red-painted millhouse that was burned by Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troops in 1864.
On Monday mornings or by appointment, visitors to Luray may tour the Massanutten School. The circa-1880, one-room schoolhouse is located next to Luray’s public library. Tours begin at 11 a.m.
Outside the schoolhouse, although not in its original location, is a slave auction block that was once used in Luray. According to an adjacent interpretive sign, the sandstone block “was used as a perch for slaves about to be sold at auction” and “is said to be one of the few now in existence.”
The biggest annual event in town is the Luray Triathlon, which attracts athletes from all over the U.S. The 2016 triathlon, which has both sprint- and international-distance races, will be held on Aug. 20 and 21 at Lake Arrowhead Park.
The park is located about four miles outside of downtown Luray and is a popular place for swimming, boating and fishing. “It’s super hilly,” Kelly Zitzer, tourism associate with the Luray-Page Chamber of Commerce, said of the course. “It’s very popular because it’s very challenging.”
The Page Valley Fair opens the same weekend as the triathlon and runs through Aug. 27. Zitzer said there also will be live music in town that weekend. “Triathlon weekend is our main weekend,” she said. “The start of the fair, hundreds of athletes in town and live music that weekend. It’s super busy. It’s really fun.”
By Suzanne Ramsey