Caves Concealed Runaways, Rebels & Revelers

As published by the Daily News Journal, February 24, 2013

Rutherford County is honeycombed by 129 documented caves.  The best known and most spectacular is the Snail Shell Cave system with seven known entrances and over 12 miles of charted passages near Rockvale.  The most fabled and neglected is the so-called Black Cat Cave, which lies under the Lebanon Pike west of the York VA Medical Center campus.

Every cave has its stories. Several Rutherford caves served as places of refuge and concealment for Confederate forces during the Civil War.  Local caves also served to conceal the production and inventories of a number of moonshine entrepreneurs during the 20th century. Refuge and concealment are common themes.


C.C. Henderson, retired publisher of the News-Banner, forerunner of The Daily News Journal, wrote in 1927 about “many caves” in Rutherford that were used as “places of refuge and concealment” by “runaways… in ante-bellum times, when the institution of slavery existed.”

“The darky would make his escape from bondage and take up his abode in one of these cavities,” described Henderson.  “There he would be secretly visited by his relatives and friends and given food.  In the event his whereabouts were not known his situation would become rather desperate, as he was forced to make forays in the neighborhood at the dead hours of the night, which greatly increased his chances of being captured and returned to his master.”

One such cave, according to Henderson, was near the Manchester Pike, several miles south of Murfreesboro.  “It was ideally situated, being located in a dense forest of cedars and undergrowth … this was one of the favorite refuges.  The cave was a place to be avoided … on account of the legend to the effect that a runaway had taken up his habitation therein and been burned to death, or suffocated by the smoke, when the whites tried to catch him.”

That particular runaway, explained Henderson, was said to possess “voodoo” powers.  “He was said to have … the power of physically appearing or disappearing at will.  Many … believed implicitly in these reports and therefore regarded this cave as being ‘hanted’ by the ‘speret’ of the sorcerer.

“Whether there was any foundation for the legend is not a question now raised, but it is a fact that many years after the war some curious young men explored the cave, traversing a distance of several hundred yards and found the perfect skeleton of a man therein, surrounded by a lot of voodoo paraphernalia.  On making the gruesome discovery the young men hastily left the place … (for) fear of noxious gases.”

The haunted cave identified by Henderson was likely Broyles Cave in Broyles Hollow just north of Beechgrove, but could also have been Mason Cave or one of several others in the same area.

Rainbow Cave (aka Black Cat Cave)

The John Thomas Sullivan farm straddled the Lebanon Pike just a bit north of the old Compton Road crossing.  The family home, where at least three generations had lived by the 1930s, was on the east side of the Pike. In front of the house, near the roadway, was a long bluff of exposed limestone.  Beneath the rock overhang, facing the highway, was a cave entrance.

This snapshot, circa 1933, shows how the mouth of (Black Cat Cave (aka Rainbow Cave) was enclosed for the Black Cat Tavern. In the foreground is a 1928 Star automobile owned by Pauline Neely, the last tavern operator. The cave was on the J. T. Sullivan farm, now part of Murfreesboro Parks & Recreation.

This snapshot, circa 1933, shows how the mouth of (Black Cat Cave (aka Rainbow Cave) was enclosed for the Black Cat Tavern. In the foreground is a 1928 Star automobile owned by Pauline Neely, the last tavern operator. The cave was on the J. T. Sullivan farm, now part of Murfreesboro Parks & Recreation.

“It was the Rainbow Cave,” remembers Marian Sullivan Webb, granddaughter of the farm owner.  “Someone had painted a rainbow on the bluff face.” Whether the name predated the painting or was prompted by the art is unclear.  In the 1920s, according to local lore, Sullivan walled in the mouth of the cave like a storefront with three doors and eight to ten windows.  The front interior of the cave was divided into three rooms.

Webb remembers that inside the cave there was a dance floor, a “big” fireplace, a small dining room and a kitchen.  The Sullivan children were not permitted in the cave, and Webb remembers stories of the cave at some earlier time being a place for “drinking, gambling and risqué women.”

In the 1930s, after the repeal of Prohibition, Sullivan leased the cave to Mrs. Pauline Lannom Neely.  “She put hardwood on the dance floor and covered the walls with cedar planks.  On Saturday nights they held square dances in the cave,” recalls Webb.

In 1937, the Sullivans sold 18 acres on the east side of the Pike to the VA, and moved to their remaining property across the highway.  Soon after the VA opened the new hospital, the highway was rerouted to the east of the cave, and Neely moved her business to an above-ground location closer to Murfreesboro.  “I don’t recall anyone else running a business in the cave after Mrs. Neely left,” says Webb.

On the west side of the cave there was a spring “near where we threshed corn under a big hackberry tree.  The spring flowed into a sink that ran into the cave,” recalls Webb.  “There was also a cave entrance on the VA side near the river.”

In 1971, the VA transferred the cave property to the city of Murfreesboro with the stipulation that the property be maintained and operated as a “public park and public recreation area.”  This use was to be “perpetual.” (See Rutherford Co. Deed Book No. 205, page 550.)  Today the entrance to Rainbow Cave, more commonly known as the Black Cat Cave, is partially filled and concealed by undergrowth. (“Black Cat” is believed to have been the name of the tavern or nightclub that operated in the 1920s.  Unfortunately, there is no reliable documentation of such cave activity during Prohibition.)

It is curious that this storied cave is not listed in either of the two Tennessee Division of Geology publications on Tennessee caves: “Caves of Tennessee” by Thomas Barr (1961) and “Descriptions of Tennessee Caves” by Larry Matthews (1971).


Eusebius Bushnell, a Revolutionary War captain, was an aggressive purchaser of North Carolina land grants in the late 1700s.  At one time he controlled over 10,000 acres in what is today the northern and eastern sections of Rutherford County.  A substantial portion of the Rucker properties were assigned from Bushnell.

Proximate to his holdings along today’s Twin Oaks Drive (aka Lover’s Lane) east of Murfreesboro was a cave from which flowed a “remarkable large cave spring,” feeding a stream that joined the East Fork upstream from today’s Walter Hill community.  According to early land records and 19th century maps, the cave was named for Bushnell and the stream was named Bushnell Creek.

But it appears that Union cartographers during the Civil War may have mistakenly identified this East Fork tributary as “Bushmans Creek.”  This misnomer was repeated on the 1878 Beers map and now appears on most area maps, although the Bushnell name remains in state records. (See J. J. Galloway, Tennessee Geologic Survey, Bulletin 22, 1919.)

Stovall Cave

The deep sinkhole north of the Fosterville-to-Midland Road is not listed among the charted caves in Rutherford County, but is well known to older residents of the area.  On a Sunday morning in September 1880 Merritt Stovall killed his wife and four of their children.  He carefully laid the bodies in the deep sink and then killed himself. (The only family survivor, a 21-year-old daughter named Pleasant, did not live with her parents.)

Stovall, a Civil War veteran, may have suffered from what is today recognized as “post traumatic stress.” In any event, these deaths shocked the community, including the James H. Tucker family that lived on a farm near the sinkhole.  George Franklin (“Frank”) Tucker, oldest of nine Tucker siblings, was 14 when the killings occurred.

Some years later, concerned that this family tragedy might be forgotten, Frank prepared a small cement marker on which he carefully lettered “Merritt Stovall Killed Wife and 4 Children and Drowned Himself, Sunday—September 28, 1880.”  The marker remains in place today just west of the sink.

Cave rock

Many of the Rutherford caves are formed in “Ridley limestone.”  This particular type of rock was named for Judge Bromfield Ridley Sr. of Smyrna. “At Judge Ridley’s mill, near old Jefferson, there is a good exposure of rocks of this kind.” (J. M. Safford, Tennessee Geology, 1869, p. 2.)

A cavern is not listed as a Tennessee cave unless it has accessible passages extending for at least 50 feet. Those shorter than this measure, many of which can be found in Rutherford County, are called “rock shelters.”

Greg Tucker can be reached at

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