Becky Stark made no attempt to contain her excitement Tuesday afternoon as she took her first steps through the rusty metal door at Howe Caverns that had marked the end of the public tour since 1900.
As she emerged on the other side of the door, after crouching and sloshing through a foot and a half of water, she swept her headlamp across the others in the group and beamed, “We’re making history.”
Stark, now the tourism coordinator for Schoharie County, worked at Howe Caverns as a tour guide when she was in high school, taking group after group of families and schoolchildren up to those doors, then having to turn back.
“You always wonder to yourself, ‘What else is beyond there?’ ” she said minutes earlier in the traditional tour area. “And the fact that no one has been back there since 1900, it’s really, really cool to be part of history, to be one of the first ones that are able to experience it.”
Stark joined a small group Tuesday for a sneak preview of the new Signature Rock Discovery Tour, which, beginning May 3, will take visitors through the area “beyond those dam doors” for the first time in more than 100 years.
“This is entirely different from the traditional Howe Caverns tour,” said Guy Schiavone, specialty tour manager at Howe Caverns, before leading the preview tour Tuesday. “This section of the cave doesn’t have any lights, any walkways, so you will have to be a little bit more adventurous in order to do this.”
Visitors on the traditional tour wander on broad walkways, marveling at rock formations; visitors on the Signature Rock Discovery Tour suit up in tall rubber boots, white Tyvek coveralls, helmets, headlamps and gloves, and slosh and crawl through mud, rocks and water.
“You’re going to be walking through water, you’re going to be walking over rocks, you’re going to be crawling in some spaces, you’re going to be walking hunched over,” Schiavone said. “It’s really exciting, it’s a lot of fun and it’s a little bit challenging, too.”
The roughly 1,200-foot area of cavern beyond the dam doors is entirely dark but for the headlamps of visitors, which sparkle on the glitter-like gypsum that covers much of the ceiling. The walk is wet, sometimes through water nearly knee-deep, and the footing often unstable.
“Step as I step, do as I do,” Schiavone reminded the group repeatedly as he navigated the cavern, the visitors winding behind him single-file like a snake.
The cavern has none of the modern conveniences of the traditional tour, but it was actually part of the original tour when Lester Howe first opened for business in 1842. The entire cavern closed in 1900 when Howe was facing financial troubles and sold to a mining company. It was reopened by Howe Caverns Inc. in 1927, according in Schiavone, but the 1,200 feet beyond the dam doors was kept closed to the public as a “buffer” between the tourist cavern and mining operations.
When the company was bought by Charles Wright and Emil Galasso in 2008, they began negotiations with Cobleskill Stone Products, the current owner of the mine portion, to reopen the closed area.
“So this has been something that we’ve been hoping to do ever since the Galassos took over,” said Schiavone. “And this year, everything fell into place, and we were finally able to finish it up and get things going.”
The Signature Rock Discovery Tour still bears evidence of Howe’s early tours, from the half-buried boat he used to ferry visitors in and out to the water pipes, stacked-rock walls and, of course, the rock that has Howe’s named carved into it, along with those of hundreds of other notable visitors.
“What you’re seeing is exactly how it was left,” Schiavone told visitors Tuesday. “You are the first people, besides Howe Caverns employees, to be back here since 1900.”
The roughly two-hour tour brings visitors past more than a dozen natural and historic features, with names like The Music Hall, Congress Hall and Franklin Avenue. The latter is a long hall with a pit along the right side from which water can be heard, but not seen, rushing somewhere below.
“You’re going to want to stay as close to the wall as you can, otherwise you’ll be taking a tumble,” Schiavone warned.
Other features, like the Tower of Babel, an enormously tall stalagmite, and the Haunted Castle, a cavern containing thousands of bones of bats, mice and snakes dating back more than 15,000 years, can only be reached by crawling, in one instance through an opening little more than a foot around.
At the end of the preview tour Tuesday, the big metal dam doors were closed again until tours begin May 3. A group taking the traditional tour, waiting on the dock to board the boats, would have to stop at those doors and turn around like all the others since 1900.
“As spectacular as the cave is, both guests and employees alike have always wondered what lies beyond the boat ride in that mysterious area where the lights don’t reach,” said Schiavone. “This year, that’s all going to change.”