Snail Shell one of nation’s most biologically important cave

Susan Harber, the Daily News Journal, April 17, 2017

Much of Snail Shell Cave is underwater. Cave divers have fearlessly mapped and explored these deep and cold waters.

While there are unprecedented records on file in the history of our county in the past 200 years, the study of our primeval history is limited and vague. Therefore, the events in our county over 1,000 years ago is elusive. Yet, times are changing. The recent archeology in Magnolia Valley of Eagleville indicates artifacts found in relation to humans living on this farm date to the Paleo Era of 20,000 years prior. Another fundamental source to further affirm our earliest origin is the existence of caves.

There are 129 documented caves in Rutherford County. These subterranean depressions are fascinating and deem exploration and discovery over time. The Snail Shell Cave Preserve has historical significance dating to the Woodland Period (300 BC-900 AD) that reveals untold manifestation.

One unique cave near Manchester Pike sits among a dense forest of cedars and was a primary refuge for runaway slaves seeking concealment. Slaves secretly were visited by relatives and given food, and slaves often surfaced at night in an attempt for freedom.

The city of Murfreesboro constructed an innovative gate system to prohibit public access to the property and still allow air and water exchange in the cave system as well as habitat for cave-dwelling species. (Photo: Submitted)

Further, the Black Cat (Rainbow) Cave on Old Lebanon Pike is an exciting archaeological excavation. The prehistoric cemetery dates to the middle Archaic Period (6000-4000 BC). Stone artifacts have been uncovered recently; and snail shells and freshwater mussels have been identified as brought into the cave for early human activity. Our prehistoric cultural past is actively explored in a beautiful manner in this foremost cave.

A primary cave in Rockvale that has caught my total attention is the predominant Snail Shell Cave. This cave has 17 varieties of snail shells unveiled in past decades. The history within this limestone cavity is quite stunning.

Snail Shell Cave is an 88-acre preserve amid cedar glades and has been identified as one of the nation’s most biologically important cave sites. The mouth of the cave (sinkhole) is 200 feet wide by 300 feet long, and the walls are vertical. The cave has a small stream running through the main channel ponded in large lakes. The hollow has perpendicular cliffs on three sides and a gravel slope on the fourth. There are more than nine miles of surveyed passages in the cave. Thus, it is the longest continuous cave in the Tennessee Central Basin. The cave is part of the Overall Creek Drainage Basin in Rutherford County with four known entrances.

William Owen Scott Sr. purchased the cave property on March 21, 1939, for $600. He passed away in 1982, and his wife, Josephine, continued preservation.

Bert Denton and Dr. Thomas Barr found the entrance in September 1951 and explored the cave. Dr. Barr, author of the bulletin “Caves of Tennessee,” provided valuable maps, photographs and authentic descriptions of the modern-day rediscovery. Barr was the first to conduct an extensive biological survey.

The main entrance of the cave is Karst Window that indicates a collapse has occurred in the middle of a cave stream passage. The Karst features are sinkholes, fissures and sinking streams that make Snail Shell Cave so special. The cave is on the “Top 10 Most Endangered Karst Communities” in the country. Snail Shell Cave has been weakened over time by trespassing, vandalism, logging, development and pollution.

In 1999, Southeastern Cave Conservancy purchased the cave and acreage to protect the ecosystem and provide access to certified cavers, researchers and professionals associated with speleology.

The cave begins near Eagleville and flows northeast for 13 miles and emerges in a spring on the West Fork of Stones River. Much of the cave is underwater. Cave divers have fearlessly mapped and explored these deep and cold waters. Exploration of the cave stream continues with small boats in areas such as the Grand Canal. The flow of water is minimal; yet heavy rain alters a stream into a massive torrent of water. The sinkhole is subject to heavy flooding.

Snail Shell Cave, along with Echo Cave and Nanna Cave, entail a vast underground complex. In the sinkhole of the main entrance is a large number of endangered plants and animal species, including Tennessee milkvetch, limestone fameflower, Southern cavefish, gray bat and cave snails. The diversity of plants, mammals, invertebrates and amphibians are a vital natural resource.

The cave system was formed in the Ridley limestone formation of the Ordovician pre-historic age of 400 million years ago. Snail Shell Cave is our olden Rutherford County treasure that was intact prior to the Civil War and before the discovery of America. This hollow ground of weathered rocks formed in a complex geologic system are timeless. We are so fortunate to serve as protective caretakers of a beautiful natural wonder in our present-day landscape, as we strive to understand our prehistoric cultural past.

Contact Susan Harber at

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