History Can Be Cool
Last week when the thermostat hit 107 degrees in St. Louis, my family headed to the blissful coolness (60 degrees!) of the Meramec Caverns. It was my first time inside a cave, and I didn’t know what to expect. I grew up in Rhode Island; there was no spelunking in my childhood. But I’ve learned a bit about Missouri caves from working at the History Museum. I know that Anheuser-Busch and other breweries used caves downtown to chill their beer, and welcomed overheated St. Louisans to drink in the caves. I know that Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were lost in a Hannibal cave (a real place now known as Mark Twain Cave). And I know that Jesse James used Meramec Caverns to hide out from the law.
But I didn’t know that Meramec used to be called Saltpeter Cave, and that it was used as a dance hall in the 1890s. I know a lot about the Civil War in Missouri from our current exhibit, but I just learned that Union forces used the cave to make gunpowder. Confederate guerrillas later destroyed the gunpowder mill to force the Yankees from the area (Jesse James was one of them; that’s how he learned about the cave).
We just thought we’d be escaping the merciless heat for a few hours, but we found history there.
—Lauren Mitchell, Senior Editor