“Something New, Romantic, and Sublime”: Weyer’s Cave and the University of Virginia
    by Ben Hitchcock

“Weyer’s Cave is the most remarkable cave at present known,” begins the 1852 pamphlet “A Description of Weyer’s Cave” (1). Such lofty praise is echoed by nearly every visitor to the Augusta County cave in the nineteenth century. “The scene was truly imposing—far surpassing description. It must be seen to be known. No pen can portray its beauty; no fancy paint, nor imagination conceive, its sublime grandeur,” declared an 1828 article in the Delaware Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal. The Washington, D.C. National Daily Intelligencer echoed the same sentiment in 1847. “It is a cave full of wonders…more perfect and beautiful than any which the imagination can conceive…To be felt or appreciated it must be witnessed.” The marvelous cave attracted visitors from all around the region. Many students from the University of Virginia visited the cave to enjoy not only the natural attractions but also the cave’s surprisingly active social scene. As the antebellum period progressed, the cave came to hold significance not just as a diversion but also as a reflecting point for the romanticism and Southern exceptionalism taking hold in Virginia just before the Civil War.

The short 1852 “Description” meticulously guides readers through each of the cave’s expansive caverns, just as they would have been perceived and referred to in the cave’s early days. The path first led to the Statuary Chamber, “so called from a number of stalagmites which bear striking resemblance to statues” (4). The next room was Solomon’s Temple, distinguished by “a wave-like folding of incrustations from the ceiling to the floor, resembling a waterfall” (4). Then came the Tapestry Room, the Ball Room, the Narrow Passage, Congress Hall, Washington Hall, Jefferson Hall, and many more. Each room housed some new wonder. “Rich and rare crystals of a singular beauty and great variety” (7) greeted cave guests in one chamber; in another lay “an immense stalagmitic mass, thirty-six feet in length” (10). The main path through the cave ran well over a mile in length, and was apparently replete with wonders. The drawing below, depicting the room called Solomon’s Temple, was published in an 1889 pamphlet called “Grottoes of the Shenandoah.”

 

The cave was discovered in 1804 by a trapper named Bernard Weyer, who stumbled upon the entrance while chasing an errant groundhog (4). The cave sat under land owned by the Mohler family, who, recognizing the value of the cave as an attraction, soon became energetic caretakers. Jacob Mohler (b. 1804) was the cave’s first active proprietor but was eventually succeeded by his nephew, John Leonard Mohler (b. 1840), who devoted his life to guiding visitors through the expanse of caverns. The Mohlers hosted cave guests in a large mansion-cum-country inn on the property. The “commodious mansion of twenty-one rooms…with its crackling open fireplaces, and its groaning tables, was indeed a retreat to fly off to upon any pretext, for many years after the Civil War,” notes Cora Garber Gregory in Genealogy of the Ludwig Mohler Family (18). The Mohlers were slaveholders, and the hospitality for which their estate became famous depended on the work of their enslaved persons. John Leonard, known to his family as Len, had an enslaved valet who accompanied his every move but who remains unnamed in Gregory’s Genealogy (19). 

The cave lies 32 miles away from the University of Virginia, and it is perhaps unsurprising that a natural wonder of such repute should have attracted students from the University (Description of Weyer’s Cave, 1). The cave is first mentioned in the University’s records on April 6th, 1836. “Messers Dickson, W. C. Woods and Helms applied for leave of absence for two days to visit Weyers Cave which was to be illuminated. Their request was granted,” tersely note the faculty minutes of that year. Throughout the antebellum years, occasional visits to the cave seem to be a regular part of University life. From 1836 to 1859, there are over forty recorded instances of students requesting leave to visit the cave. Students went in groups of up to a half-dozen and generally requested at least three or four days of leave — it took a day to reach the cave by carriage — but sometimes stayed for as long as two weeks (University Catalogues, 1836-59). 

The students were no doubt drawn in some measure by the cave’s exquisite geology, but they were likely drawn in equal measure by cave’s surprisingly vibrant social scene. This description of a night at the cave, published in the October 13, 1825 edition of Philadelphia’s Aurora and Franklin Gazette, seems to defy belief:

“This cavern was lighted up on the 15th of this month with a vast number of candles; and although, for want of topping, the candles burned very dimly, yet the effect which was produced on the beholders, by the splendor and sublimity of the scene, was great in the extreme. The candles were places on the sides of the walls, and on various stalactites, which represent chandeliers; they were fastened with tenacious clay, said to be fullers’ earth, which is found in the cave. In some places, Washington’s hall particularly, the numerous burning tapers could be seen 80 or 90 yards before us; these appeared as if a thousand radiant stars were twinkling before us. We had the music of violins in the ball room, where a number of ladies and gentlemen amused themselves in dancing. There were also clarionets in different parts of the cave, and in some places the reverberation of the sound communicated to the music double effect.”

For a young, southern, antebellum gentleman, a visit to Weyer’s Cave promised much more interesting entertainment than a few stalactites. The subterranean candlelit balls provided a wild, fantastical, ethereal diversion. An 1854 article in Harper’s Magazine (reprinted later in a pamphlet entitled “Grottoes of the Shenandoah”) described one such ball with rapturous whimsicality:

“Next came the Ball Room, a long apartment with a smooth and hard floor, a natural platform at one end for the musicians, a stalagmite some four feet high beside it to hold a lamp, a beautiful stalactite pendant from the ceiling just in the center of the room for a chandelier, and a beautiful grotto at one side for a lady’s dressing-room… Such a dance! How grotesque must the scene have appeared to any one who could have peeped down at us through some chink in the rock above!… Yonder out of the shadow and into the light, and again out of the light and into the gloom, float graceful girlish forms, and the senior partner dances as if the weights of business had dropped ever from his feet, and the fiddler fiddles as if his body and soul had become absorbed in the instrument, and from the walls strange forms seem to start out, and gnomes, and imps, and elves, and faeries, seem smirking and smiling at us half breathless…”

These parties were organized by the Mohlers and advertised in newspapers around the region. They became very popular events. A composer named Fred Seibert even went so far as to compose a “Weyer’s Cave Mazurka,” or folk dance, in 1857. The advertisement below, featured in the August 25, 1840 issue of the Richmond Enquirer, displays both the Mohlers’ obsequious customer service and the apparent success of the cave as an attraction: 

"Weyer’s Cave will be illuminated on Wednesday, the 23d of September, 1840, with upwards of Two Thousand Candles. As the subscriber has become the sole proprietor of this singular, renowned, and justly celebrated wonder of Nature, he is prompted by increased inducements, (in addition to his acknowledged duties to the public,) to make increased exertions for the comfort of visitors. He hopes to effect successful arrangements on this occasion for the observance of perfect order, and to be able to merit a continuance of the liberal patronage hitherto bestowed, for which he returns his grateful acknowledgements.  Good music will be procured for the Cave and for the Ball-room. Gentleman admitted into the Cave for one Dollar — ladies gratis. - Jacob Mohler"

To a U.Va. student in the early nineteenth century, a party like this must have been heavenly. Student life at the University, especially in the twenties and thirties, was dominated by unrest and disciplinary tension. In his diary from 1835, student Charles Ellis repeatedly notes how strict the faculty could be in enforcing rules agains partying. Student Monroe Kelly, for example, was suspended for two months for “drinking two or three glasses of ‘vin’,” a decision Ellis felt was “most unjust.” There were also limited settings in which men could socialize with women on the University’s all-male campus. Ellis notes that he generally attended parties “knowing there would be a sufficiency of the male sex without my bringing any supernumerary.” A chance to take a young lady and escape to a fanciful ball must have been a very appealing prospect. 

Weyer’s Cave, however, was more than just a place to let loose. Descriptions of the cave from the time show that it held significance as a symbol for a number of developing cultural movements. Breathless descriptions of the cave evidence the popularity of romanticism as a cultural movement in the South. Romanticism began to take shape in the late 18th century, spurred by the work of a handful of eminent English poets. The movement emphasized individualism and emotion. Awe of nature’s splendor and grandeur, often referred to as “sublimity,” was seen as a particularly important source of powerful emotional experience. Antebellum southern romanticism blended a Byron- and Worsdworth-ian reverence for nature with traditional southern evangelicalism and agrarianism. As the Civil War approached, this romantic spirit fed into regional pride and rivalry, and the glorious landscapes described by so many became evidence supporting the idea of an independent destiny for the South. Weyer’s Cave reflected both romanticism and sectional tension. 

Visitors to the cave during this period inevitably turned to the language of romanticism to capture the cave’s effect on them. In 1828 the South Carolina State Gazette and Columbia Advertiser called it a “proud trophy of the ingenuity of nature.” The Richmond Enquirer echoed that sentiment in 1856, telling its readers that “several hours can be passed most delightfully in threading the mazes of that wonderful and sublime natural curiosity.” The Virginia Free Press could hardly have been more explicit, running an 1837 ad for the cave entitled “Something New, Romantic, and Sublime.” These descriptions echo the famous English romantics of the time.

By the fifties, this romanticism had become a source of pride for many in the South, and an increased appreciation for the South’s natural beauty further separated the North and the South, sowing the seeds for eventual secession. The Virginia countryside, as characterized through the lens of romanticism, possessed near-magical healing powers. “A man from the lowlands, with chills and fever, was once seen in Staunton,” reads an 1856 essay in the Richmond newspaper the Daily Dispatch. “The people looked upon him with the wonder with which we should regard a man with the leprosy.— He was considered a greater curiosity than the Natural Bridge or Weyer’s Cave.” An article in the Daily Dispatch on June 20, 1854, went one step further. “If people want salt air and bathing is there no sea coast in the South? If they desire medicinal springs, are these confined to the Northern States? Why, of all the medicinal waters in this continent, there is none surpassing those of the South.” The article listed all of the “sublime and wonderful” features of Virginia, from the Natural Bridge to the Peaks of Otter to, of course, Weyer’s Cave. As sectional tensions across the country rose, the rural virtue of the pastoral as opposed to the urban was seen as a major point of difference between the South and the North. “It is a subject of the most unmixed astonishment and humiliation that Southerners should pass by their glorious mountain springs and breezes of their own South for the hot and crowded saloons, and the heartless and corrupt society of a Northern watering place,” continues the same Dispatch article. Weyer’s Cave was a prime example of the unspoiled wonders of the South, and thus yet another reason that many felt the South and North to be essentially different. The seemingly neutral cave became politicized by the fervor of the antebellum years.

The cave’s holding of political weight hints at how charged the situation in Virginia had become. U.Va. students would have surely felt the tension in the air. Weyer’s Cave, a place for whimsy and merry-making, became a political monument. Every facet of student life at U.Va. during this period was affected by the political climate. It is unsurprising, given this atmosphere, that U.Va. eventually became a flash point for secession — the first Confederate flag to fly in Virginia was flown from the top of the Rotunda in 1861.

Weyer’s Cave is still open to the public, although it now goes by the name of Grand Caverns. Its significance as a landmark dwindled in the late nineteenth century when Luray Caverns, a much larger and even more fantastical network of caves, was discovered just down the road in 1878. During its heyday, however, Weyer’s Cave was a significant part of University of Virginia student life not only as a whimsical diversion but also as a stage onto which the cultural and political movements of the day were projected.

References: 

Aurora and Franklin Gazette. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 13 October 1825.Daily Dispatch. Richmond, Virginia, 20 June 1854.Daily Dispatch. Richmond, Virginia, 25 July 1856.Gregory, Cora Garber. “Genealogy of the Ludwig Mohler family in America.” Lincoln, Nebraska, 1921. “Grottoes of the Shenandoah.” The Valley Virginian Print. Staunton, 1889.Head, Ronald B., ed., “The Student Diary of Charles Ellis, Jr., March 10-June 25, 1835,” The Magazine of Albemarle County History, 1978. Mohler, John Leonard. “A Description of Weyer’s Cave in Augusta County, Virginia.” 1852. www.hathitrust.orgRichmond Enquirer. Richmond, Virginia, 25 August 1840.Richmond Enquirer. Richmond, Virginia, 30 May 1856.South Carolina State Gazette and Columbia Advertiser. Columbia, South Carolina. 15 November 1825.University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes. (1836)University of Virginia. University Catalogues. (1836-1859). Virginia Free Press. Charlestown, West Virginia, 1 June 1837.