Author Dana Cudmore has long had a knack for tracing the history of local caves and the oftentimes eccentric entrepreneurs who have made them tourist attractions.
With his latest book, Cudmore wanted to dive even deeper.
“Underground Empires: Two Centuries of Exploration, Adventure & Enterprise in New York’s Cave Country,” which is out later this month delves into the origin story of Howe Caverns, as well as a few other local caves like Knox Cave in Albany County and Schoharie Caverns.
Cudmore, a Cobleskill resident, has been interested in caves since he was a kid when he and a few friends would explore local caves. He also worked as a tour guide at Howe Caverns for several years.
“The place just really fascinated me and I’d tell the tale of how the cave was discovered at least four times a day and I knew there had to be more to it than that. So did everybody else that worked there,” Cudmore said.
Later, in between working as a journalist, at one time for The Gazette, and working as a communications specialist, he logged hours and hours of research on caves, particularly Howe Caverns.
They formed around six million years ago and according to historic records, in the early 1770s, a man named Jonathan Schmul was running from Native Americans when he hid in the entrance to the cave. More than 70 years later, it was opened for commercial tours by Lester Howe, who was an enterprising farmer. It was the third commercial cave venture in the United States at that time.
Some of the earliest paid tours were conducted in 1843 when Howe charged 50 cents for an eight-to-10-hour tour of the caverns, lit up by torches carried by the explorers.
In his 1990 book “The Remarkable Howe Caverns Story” Cudmore detailed the earliest days of the caverns to the present when the business was undergoing some physical and financial challenges. Since writing it, he’s found out more about the people involved in Howe Caverns and other local caves and decided to expand upon what he’d written about in his debut book.
“Looking back at it I guess I didn’t realize that that first book had kind of a cliffhanger ending. At the end of it, the Cave House was falling apart, the roof had been taken off by a tornado. It had been abandoned for decades and there was a chance it would be lost forever. Howe’s Cave Quarry was closed. No one knew what was going to happen there. It was a mess. It was an eyesore and Howe Caverns, the future was looking a little murky. . . . Since then in the last 30 years, all of that’s turned around,” Cudmore said.
A group of volunteers helped to restore the Cave House and in 2003 opened the Cave House Museum of Mining and Geology. Since 1990, the caverns are also under new ownership, which has bolstered tour options and brought in novelty experiences like escape rooms and naked cave tours.
Cudmore tracks those changes in “Underground Empires” and highlights some of the more eccentric characters that he discovered through his years of research.
“I added an awful lot of new information about the people that are involved in the Howe Caverns story. . . I’ve always thought it’s just an interesting plot, almost worthy of a novel, how a farmer finds a cave and shows it to the world . . . [there are] a lot of really colorful characters and I tried to bring them out more in this version,” Cudmore said.
One such character is D.C. Robinson, who was a local cave expert in the 1920s.
“He was a real entrepreneur and there were all these caves in the area. He rigged a rope over a fallen tree and he would let people down into his caves for a couple of pennies. They would take pictures and explore and he would pull them back up. He was only a young teenager when he did this,” Cudmore said.
He went on to become one of the early proponents of Howe Caverns Incorporated in the 1920s and he eventually opened Knox Cave in Albany County.
“There was a roller skating rink there that drew 1,000 people every Saturday night for square dancing but a lot of little stories of [Robinson’s] exploits in the book,” Cudmore said.
Cudmore also delves deeper into some of the eccentricities of Howe himself.
“Lester Howe had his daughters married in the cave and we always assumed that was a publicity stunt and it turns out the caves were used for weddings pretty frequently,” Cudmore said.
“Fireworks were part of the adventure. After you married in the cave, Howe would set up fireworks in the cave and it was a pretty grand event.”
Howe would also host concerts in the cave and on some tours he would surprise visitors by playing the violin, as they walked along in the dark paths, lit only by their torch lamps.
“There was another spot in the cave, they called it the rotunda, it was a high circular room and he would fire skyrockets up just to show people how far up it went. He was a character,” Cudmore said.
On Saturday, from noon to 4 p.m. Cudmore will give presentations at the Cave House Museum about the history of the caverns, which will include portions of his book. Cudmore will also autograph copies of “Underground Empires,” and a portion of the book sales that day will benefit the museum. For more on the event visit the Cave House Museum of Mining and Geology on Facebook. For more on the book visit shop.blackdomepress.com.