Rose Point and Portersville Caves

October 19

One of the main purposes of our conservancy is to protect caves and karst areas so that they will be around for future generations. Sure, there are plenty of caves out there, even plenty of open caves now, but a look into our not-so-distant past reveals that there are many caves which were here not so long ago but they aren’t here now. This new series in our newsletter will take a look at some of these now-vanished caves, the history behind them, and tell the story of why they aren’t here, if we know the reason. 

Rose Point Cave

Northwest Pennsylvania is not known as a “caving mecca” for most modern-day cavers. The reputations of its caves -- those that aren’t small tectonic ones -- is of maze, mud, mud, and more mud. Cleveland’s cavers occasionally venture eastward to the closest caves of any significance to the city on the lake; however, the grotto which does “sewering” as a hobby may be saying something about this type of caving -- that is, is sewering better than mud? The longest cave in Pennsylvania is in the northwest, but a long-gone cave was probably longer. Few cavers know, care, or even remember, that another northwestern Pennsylvania cave was thought to be even longer than the state’s current record-holder. That’s because it isn’t here anymore. Rose Point Cave gleaned only a brief mention when Will White wrote about it in Caves of Western Pennsylvania, which we western Pennsylvania cavers simply refer to as the “red book.” (Pennsylvania Geological Survey, Fourth Series, Harrisburg, 1976, pages 57-58). “Stone (1953) describes an extensive network cave in the Vanport limestone which was located in an old quarry on the south side of U.S. Route 422, 9 miles east of New Castle. The cave has been destroyed due to resumed quarrying operations. Several attempts to locate surviving fragments of the cave have failed. W. B. White. ”But early Pittsburgh Grotto and Ohio cavers knew the cave, and knew it well. Or at least as well as anyone can know a Vanport cave.

Frank Mielcarek, who currently lives in Fayette County, was on many field trips to the cave. The Pittsburgh Grotto’s Netherworld News in the mid 1950s mentions several trips, through the early 1960s: “Field Trip Log, Vanport Caves, April 25, 1960 “The caves visited in the Vanport limestone on this beautiful day were H. . . and Rose Point Cave. They were visited because of curiosity and to find out their muddy conditions. “. . . After scraping off some more mud, I headed for Rose Point, where there was once an interesting cavern. Quarrying has obliterated most of the cave since it was last seen, with limestone blocks lying all over the place. A large lake lies where cave passages once were, with various openings seen in the limestone walls. Standing near these openings, blasts of cold air can be felt, indicating cave passages still unquarried. Since the limestone is blasted apart, crinoid fossils are plentiful and can be easily picked up by the collector. Some nice, big specimens were observed. A few pictures were taken for a before-and-after effect. By observing all of the blasting area, Rose Point Cave was truly an extensive cavern.” — The Netherworld News, Volume 8, Number 5, May, 1960, Page 78.

Several months later, Charles Porter, in the same publication, wrote: “Several weeks ago I visited Lawrence County with some friends to explore . . . Rose Point Caves. The owner, Mrs. C. N. Bruce, directed us to (her cave ) and we found it rather interesting, but she said that Rose Point Cave was probably in the process of being mined out. We drove over to check and after looking over the extensive quarry for a while we were unable to see a sign of the cave. We asked a resident living within a few hundred feet of the quarry and he said that Rose Point Cave had indeed been completely mined out.” — Netherworld News, Volume 8, Number 8, August 1960, Page 139.

Mielcarek, writing of a June 2, 1963 trip to Rose Point, noted: “We came out of (a) cave at about three in the afternoon and, finding no one around, I went over to see what had happened to the former Rose Point Cave. As was observed by others, there was nothing left of the cave. However, the day was not a complete loss; having looked for many years I finally found a Star Crinoid at Rose Point. It took a lot of dynamite and the loss of a nice cave just so I could find this Star Crinoid.” — The Netherworld News, Volume 9, Number 7, July 1963, Page 129.

White and James R. Fisher mentioned Rose Point in an article titled, “Cavern Development in the Vanport Limestone,” which appeared in the February, 1958, Netherworld News, Volume 6, Number 2, Pages 32-39: “. . . Rose Point Cave is located in an old quarry on the south side of Route 422 nine miles east of New Castle, Lawrence Co. at an elevation of 1200 feet. The principal passages run north-south and are intersected at right angles by many others in the familiar grid pattern. Except for the entrance passages, the cross-section is no more than 1 to 3 feet wide by 1 to 4 feet high. The cave . . . is very extensive. The fill consists mainly of hard-packed clay. . . . Rose Point ( is} developed in nearly flat-bedded limestone. The structural map of Butler and Zelienople quadrangles show no dip other than a gentle regional one due to the southward slope of the Pittsburgh-Huntingdon basin . . . ”

So where does the idea surface that Rose Point was larger than any other? From a little-known publication called the NWPCS Journal, edited by Edward Forrest Frank, Summer 1985, Volume 2, Number 3, Page 47, Pages 56-58. Frank had formed the Northwestern Pennsylvania Cave Survey, and the NWPCS Journal was its publication. Printed mostly on mimeograph pages, in a small booklet-like format, few copies survive. Frank was primarily interested in another Vanport Cave, now closed by the owner, although he documented limestone and sandstone caves throughout the region. That summer issue provides an up-to-date listing of the caves of the Vanport Limestone and provides an accurate and vivid depiction of what these caves are like and why they are among the longest in the state.

Frank reports on the mapping of a nearby cave and then reprints a very memorable letter, which, at the very end, gives the statement that Rose Point Cave was probably longer the state’s longest cave: “(The following letter was sent to me on August 28, 1985 by Mike Dyas with a short note that said in its entirety ‘Ed - for comment and/or repub. in your newsletter. Thanks. Mike.’ The letter is indeed worth reprinting as I have done below.)

“John H. Hall, Jr., 802 Bettina Court #303, Houston, Texas, 8/20/85. “Dear Mr. Dyas, “As a V.O. C. ( Very Old Caver) NSS 2425 I read your comments on ... Cave on p. 249, August 1985 NSS News, and laughed until I nearly fell out of my chair. I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, close to (it) so I know a little about this. “The cave is unmappable. This statement was to a distinguished U.S. Geol. Survey employee, who later became NSS President, at the NSS Natl. Convention in Pittsburgh. He took umbrage at this since he considered himself an expert at cave mapping. So we said, ‘Fine, let’s see YOU map it.’ Well, he showed up at the entrance with more hardware than the Philadelphia Grotto. (This was a joke back then. The Philadelphia Grotto was renowned for taking so much equipment on weekend trips; that before they got it all loaded it was Sunday night). “So what happened? The usual when anyone tries to map (it). “First (it) is a wormhole Swiss cheese cave, like . . . defunct Rose Point. There’s a top and a bottom (somewhere) but how many levels in between is a matter of judgment. Any direction that is straight is an anomaly like! “So what is a passage? What is a room? What level do you map first? How do you keep from being lost? To my knowledge, depending on how you look at it, there is at least a mile of passage? room? hole? alcove? and so on. “So experience Mr. Dyas, you say like the geologist ‘We’ll use a compass and with that as a direction finder we’ll get this all straightened out.’ Fine, but the roof is Clinson Iron Ore, ten feet thick, which is highly magnetic. So often a compass just spins . . . Finally little pieces of this fall down and make little magnetic anomalies in the walls and floor? “You wonder why the floor has a question mark after it? (The) cave has the thickest, gummiest, stickiest, most irregular deposit of mud? I’ve ever seen or had nightmares about. If you wear loose boots it pulls them off. If you wear tight ones they get stuck in it and you have to take them off in order to move. In places it is thick enough to drown in. If you wear rough soles you can’t move, if you wear smooth soles you slip and fall in it. “The cave being a three dimensional maze, would require at least 400 horizontal closures and maybe three times more vertical. How do you do this without a magnetic compass? Computers are useless because the iron ore fusses them up too! “The geologist gave up. He realized a compass was useless and his surveying equipment had nowhere solid in the mud to be put. In fact, if I remember correctly, some of it was lost in the mud and recovered only with difficulty. “I’m sure you will think I’m a crazy old caver who is exaggerating, but I assure you that as one who has been in over three hundred wild caves, some with pretty icky mud, that the mud . . . is in a class by itself. A 200 foot trip in . . . is more exhausting than that long crawl in Floyd Collins Crystal Cave which is 4 times as long because you have to use so much effort just to walk, or more accurately, slither, slide, slip and pull (and swear). “God made this cave so that cavers would realize that they are not almighty. “I challenge you or any other caver who thinks he’s so great to accurately map this cave. I have given you all the drawbacks, the unbelievable mud, the three dimensional maze pattern, the fact that neither compass nor computer will work because of the iron ore and that surveying equipment has nowhere solid to be put. So why not issue a challenge at the next meeting you attend. Read my letter. Let them know that I consider an accurate, complete map . . . impossible. I think 3740 feet is low. (editorial comment: The figure listed in the August 1985 NSS News should have been in meters rather than in feet as was listed on the Long Caves of the U.S. List). The mappers probably became tired. 3700 feet . . . is exhausting just to think about. “Sincerely “John A. Hall Jr. “P.S. I think Rose Point Cavern was longer than either. It was in the same formation.” A few fragments of Rose Point Cave may exist today, but until cavers locate and contact the landowner of the posted property where the cave was, and get permission to look, no one will know what, if anything remains of the cave.

Portersville Cave

Just a few miles down the road from Rose Point, in Butler County, was another cave called Portersville Cave. Vertical cavers may be surprise to find out that Bruce W. Smith, better known for his work on On Rope, was a horizontal Vanport caver in his early days. Smith described Portersville Cave in the June, 1972 Netherworld News, (Volume 20, Number 3, Pages 203-204), a description which was later used in a slightly different variation in Caves of Western Pennsylvania. The Netherworld News issue gives accurate directions to the site.

Anyone following them today would find a lake on a farm situated on the reclaimed quarry site. Smith wrote: “Portersville Cave is located at the south end of a strip mine trench a half mile east of U.S. Route 19, in Butler County, Pa. Take Route 422 east from Route 19 and turn right at the Seacham Limestone Quarry road. Travel up the grade for about a quarter of a mile until piles of debris tower on the left. Walk over the stone piles, and in the quarry below, the trench is visible. “At the south end of the quarry, on a high shelf, there are two small sinks. One of these drops about four feet to the cave floor. The cave is small, muddy and wet. The largest thoroughfare in the cave is only a stoopway. The crawlways lie in a comparatively horizontal bed of Vanport limestone that is only about twenty feet thick.”

The map, drawn by Smith, and published with his article, notes it was discovered and mapped by Joseph Lockley and Tom Lockley in September of 1969. Although no length is given on the map, Ed Frank, in the NWPCS Journal, Volume 1, Number 6, October-December 1984, pages 141-143, gives a length of 1,942 feet. He writes that the length in his table listing Caves of the Vanport Limestone, “was measured from this map by the author (Frank).”