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Caves discovered in the early 1800’s in Watertown NY

 These caves are not open to the public today

A vast network of caverns of varying heights and expanses with intricate ramifications and labyrinthine corridors occupy the thick and expansive deposit of limestone over which the city of Watertown has been built.

The limestone is said to be of the Black River type, but limestone does not cease with the city boundaries.  An immense sheet of it underlies the townships of Rutland, Watertown, Rodman, Adams, Ellisburgh, Hounsfield, Henderson, Lyme, Pamelia and Brownville and it contributes no small measure to the fertility of the soil.

For close to a century and a half the caverns have sparked the curiosity and the exploratory skills of countless amateurs, who have crept, crawled, squeezed themselves through dank, wet muddy passages, walking upright with their torches in high Gothic chambers and returned to daylight with new and interesting observations.  These have contributed vastly to today’s knowledge of these interesting caves. 

Until the late County Judge Crandall F. Phillips, one of the most enthusiastic and systematic explorers of the local caves, discovered “1809” inscribed on one of the cavern walls, it had been historically recorded that the first exploration there was in 1822.

That expedition was made into the cave, which opens on the north side of the river near the old stone hydroelectric plant of the Niagara Mohawk Power Company at the north end of the Mill Street Bridge.  There a sloping passage debouches into a chamber 20 feet below the surface and from which avenues, like tentacles of an octopus lead away.

In one of the small-restricted passages of this cave Judge Phillips in the spring of 1935 saw beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.  Approximately 1,500 feet back from the entrance Ernest C. Gould who was with him on another occasion shortly afterward found a corked bottle in which was a slip of paper dated June 1, 1911 bearing the names Roy Carter, Charles Babcock and John W. Bragger.  Large chambers 15 feet high were found by that party, which estimated that they went as far back as Hillside Avenue.

The North Side or Moulton Street cave is said to have a passage or passages, now blocked by fallen debris, running under the river and connecting with caverns beneath Public Square, terminating in the southeasterly side of it.

On the north side of the river in the East Moulton street area below the Black-Clawson plant is a cave from five to nine feet high and six to nine feet wide for a distance of 200 feet. At 215 feet the passage is partially blocked by a large rock fallen from the roof, but it is possible to pass the obstruction and go another 110 feet before the cave ends.

In the south bank of that section of the present Newell street which used to be River street and located between Mill and Court streets is the long used “Beer“ or “Ice” cave where a local beer company stored beer for many years, but which is now sealed off against entrance.  In this cave the ice never melted until September and in mid-winter it began to congeal again.

Old-timers will recall the caves on the south side of the river at Glen Park, where the late Lincoln G. DeCant and associates operated a sort of Coney Island.  The old Watertown Street Car Company on the north side of the river transporting people to and from the bridge, which then crossed the river to this resort.  There they found Ferris Wheels, Merry-Go-Rounds, soft drink stands, midway performances and a tour of the caves to entertain them.

Near Dexter and Limerick are other interesting caverns and all have excited attention of the venturesome through the decades.  During the second World War these Moulton street, Public Square caves, the latter of which are said to run under the New York Central passenger tracks and station, were considered for bomb shelters, but that idea was soon discarded as impractical by the city government.

A few years earlier the local chamber of commerce had even considered the idea of opening them up to the public with a view of attracting people to the city.

And there is a bit of fantastic legend of 132 years ago which brings out that Watertown’s caverns were then known far beyond the confines of Jefferson County.  It is in “The Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet in California, Sonor and Western Texas” by the noted British naval officer, traveler and author, Captain Marrat, a travel work thinly veiled by fiction published in 1842.

In it Captain Marrat recalls the alleged hoax perpetrated in the fall of 1826 by 21-year old Joseph Smith who, some four years later was to discover the Book of Mormon near Palmyra, N.Y, the Bible of the Mormons or Latter Day Saints.

At that time, according to Monsieur Violet, the narrator, Joseph Smith with no money in his pockets but much matrimony in his head was in Philadelphia, Pa, and in love with a girl at Harmony, Pa.  But the father of the girl had no desire for him as a son-in-law.  So he inveigled a man named Lawrence in Philadelphia with a tale that on the banks of the Susquehanna river there was a very rich mine of silver and that if Lawrence would drive him to Harmony and recommend him to the girl’s father he might have half the profits of the silver mine.

Of course such did not exist, but Joe got to Harmony, was driven back a sadder but wiser man.

After marrying the girl Joe then wanted to get to his home at Manchester near Palmyra and, with a tale that in the caverns of Watertown, N.Y. he had seen a bar of gold as thick as a man’s leg and three feet long, but too heavy for him to lift alone, he induced a Pennsylvania Dutchman to take him from Harmony to Manchester.  The Dutchman also went back sadder but wiser.

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Last updated: 11 October 2001  
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