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Visit Mercer Caverns

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A popular tourist cave with a dark past

Victorian visitors to the cave were originally descended on ropes – now there are stairs – to view the three million year old caves via candlelight. From a Victorian brochure “Visitors should wear clothes which they never expect to wear to a wedding afterward. A candle is to be carried in one hand and it is prudent to have a supply or matches in one’s pocket.” What they probably weren’t told is that they had entered a ancient burial ground.

Originally used by a prehistoric Indian Tribe called the Yokuts as a mortuary cave, they would bring bodies to the opening and let them roll down inside. Because such a site was sacred, no one was allowed to enter. The Yokuts were hunters and when the game was gone they moved camp. Over the years, the entrance filled with dirt, leaves and rocks and was completely lost.

When Walter J. Mercer first broke through the dirt and climbed down into the cave he found the remains of four adults, one child, and one infant, and even took a bone as a souvenir. Mercer even named the caves the New Calaveras Cave or “new skull cave” after the skeletons he found within. However, in its conversion to a show cave little was said of the Indian remains, and after a name change to the Mercer Caverns memory of the caves dark history was mostly forgotten.

If this left uneasy spirits behind, it seems they got their revenge. Mercer, who working in the cave, fell thirty feet after his rope broke, and badly injured his spine, causing him great pain for the next 12 years and eventually leading to his death at the age of 46.