Saturday, March 29, 2014

#87 Legends of the Courthouse Cave (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Entrance to the Courthouse Cave
The legendary Courthouse Cave that runs beneath the City of Marianna is #87 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Please click here to see other items on the list as they are unveiled.

The story of the Courthouse Cave is very old and has been told in many different forms. Many if not most Jackson County residents, however, have at least heard the legend that an enormous cave runs from the Chipola River so far under the City of Marianna that even the Jackson County Courthouse stands atop it.

Inside the cave, looking into a natural "forest" of formations
Some speculate the courthouse could collapse into this gigantic cave almost any day. Others blame cracks that open in the courthouse building now and then on a settling of the structure due to its weight pressing down on the ceiling of the cave.

The Courthouse Cave legend originates from a story that has been told around Marianna since at least the late 1800s. According to that tale, a pair of teenage friends were exploring the cave when their torch went out and they found themselves trapped in total darkness. Unsure of which way to go, they wandered deeper and deeper into the cave.

Passage leading deep under Marianna
Search parties were organized and groups of local men launched a rescue effort that took them deeper into the cave than any of them had ever been. The missing teenagers were found and brought out alive, but the rescuers told a fascinating story. At one point far into the cave they said that they heard sounds echoing down its passages. Thinking these sounds might be coming from the lost teenagers, the rescuers searched for their source. According to the legend, the noises turned out to be the sounds of courtroom activity drifting down through the roof of the cave!

So is the story true?  Well, let's just say that it is one of hundreds of colorful Jackson County stories that result from a bit of exaggeration.

There is in fact a large cavern called the Courthouse Cave that runs deep under part of the City of Marianna, even though it doesn't quite reach all the way to the courthouse and worries of the building tumbling into it have no foundation.

I will be a little circumspect about its actual location, but the cave stretches for hundreds of yards beneath parts of Marianna. Experienced cavers have explored and mapped it, learning in the process that its myriad of passages connect to at least two other named caves.

Inside the Courthouse Cave
While the story of being able to hear courtroom activity deep inside the cave is not true, it does have a rich and important history. Prehistoric American Indian artifacts dating back thousands of years have been found inside the entrance, clear evidence that hunting parties used it as shelter when hunting along the hills on which Marianna was later founded.

On September 27, 1864, the day of the Battle of Marianna, the cave provided shelter and a hiding place for many of the city's women, children and elderly. The Union troops arrived on the west side of Marianna so quickly that many of the town's people did not have time to evacuate. As the men and boys gathered on Courthouse Square to organize for the fight, noncombatants headed for the Courthouse Cave.

View of a connecting passage in Courthouse Cave
The presence of the cave was never discovered by the Union soldiers and many Marianna residents remained safely hidden there with their valuables while the battle took place overhead. They emerged the next day after the Federal troops withdrew only to find that their homes had been ransacked and vandalized. This story is not a legend, but was told by many of those who survived the Battle of Marianna until the day they died.

Another story that may or may not be legend holds that members of the Republican Party hid arms, ammunition and assassins in the cave during the Reconstruction era violence that swept through Jackson County in 1865-1876. Documentation proving the origin of this legend has yet to be found, but its proximity to the scenes of some of the most severe Carpetbagger-led violence adds credibility to the tale.

During the Prohibition era (1920-1933), the cave was used as a place to store secret stocks of bootleg liquor. While claims that a "speakeasy" or illegal bar operated in it do not appear to be true, folklore of private parties and midnight card games might well have a bit of fact behind it.

The cave today is well-preserved and its stories make it one of the 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.


Ann Dickson said...

Loving the series...

Dale Cox said...

Thank you, Ann! It is a lot of fun for me to write.


Drew Peacock said...

In my line of work I do a lot of traveling abroad, and you're stories never fail to captivate an audience; regardless of ethnicity or background. Please keep up the good work, ensuring that theses tales never get lost in time.

Dale Cox said...

Drew, Thank you for the nice words. I try hard to make sure history and folklore are things that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of cultural or ethnic background.


FE200B said...

Our grandfather told of us of hiding in a Marianna Cave when Jackson's troops came through.

Dale Cox said...

Thank you for the note. The cave he likely was talking about is the "Indian Cave" (originally called the "Natural Bridge Cave" at Florida Caverns State Park. It was within view of the road taken by Jackson's army in 1818 and there are many, many stories among American Indian families about their ancestors hiding there to avoid capture.


Nina Lipford said...

I love these stories...Thank you for sharing them.