Pittsburgh Grotto History - Part 1

By Hermine Zotter

(From the Netherworld News: Vol. XX, No. 1, February 1972)

This material is excerpted from the Tenth Anniversary booklet produced by Hermine Zotter.
Part 1 of the Grotto History will cover those first ten years, 1947-1957.

Introduction to Caving

Aitkens Cave could be called the beginning of it all. It was August 1946 when Bob Dunn proceeded to his first cave in his 1941 Nash, lead by a young lady who had heard of the cave through relatives. Bob’s equipment consisted of a ball of twine, candle and flashlight. His companion preferred to remain at the cave entrance holding the other end of the string. However, it seems Bob braved the darkness for about an hour without the use of the lifesaving twine and departed from the cave quite awed.

About a month later, Bob saw Ralph W. Stone’s book "The Caves of Pennsylvania", at Carnegie Library and was surprised to learn that the largest cave in Pennsylvania was practically at his doorstep. He told Dick Hoffmaster, Bob Ruffing and Ray Madsen about the book. Soon they were all studying the picture of Dulaney’s Cave and planning a trip.

It was the beginning of their senior year in high school when the four boys started out for their first cave trip together. At the "Post Office" in Dulaney’s they met two other cavers, Bob and Lee Fisher, who were on their honeymoon. The group made several more trips that Fall to caves in Western Pennsylvania.

The Birth of the Pittsburgh Grotto

On November 4, 1946, "Life" published an article on the exploration of Grapevine Cave by the Charleston Grotto, NSS. This was the first time the Pittsburgh spelunkers realized that a national organization of cavers existed.

Soon afterwards, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article on the discovery of Coon Cave near Blairsville by Carl Huttenstein and Sid Cellich from Pittsburgh. This article revealed that there were other cavers in the area. The group set out to locate the cave through the description furnished in the article. They failed. After two more unsuccessful attempts they decided to ask an acquaintance, Dr. Graham Netting of Carnegie Museum, whose name also appeared in the article, for help. It was learned that Dr. Netting was an NSS member and that he had persuaded Carl Huttenstein and Sid Cellich to join. With Dr. Netting’s directions, Coon Cave was finally located.

After that, Bob Dunn wrote to the NSS for cave data and information. On March 20, 1947 he received a letter from the NSS Secretary, J.S. Petrie, forwarding not only cave data but also an application blank, a descriptive brochure and a Society membership list. Included was the statement: "Perhaps you would like to organize a grotto?" Further inquiry brought more details and a model Grotto Constitution. NSS President Stephenson suggested a definite assignment of exploration work around Petersburg in order to fill in a blank area on the cave map. By May the Pittsburgh cavers had become NSS members and definitely planned to establish a Pittsburgh Grotto.

Permission to use the Herpetology Laboratory at Carnegie Museum for an organization meeting was obtained and post card notices sent to local NSS members. The first meeting was held on Sunday, October 19, 1947 at 2:25 P.M. The following nine persons were present and constituted the Charter Members:

Norma Lee Fisher
Robert J. Fisher
Richard E. Hoffmaster
J. Robert Dunn
C. Robert Ruffing
Clifford E. Davis
William M. Cellich
Carl L. Huttenstein
M. Graham Netting

Dr. Netting presided and suggested that Bob Dunn act as Secretary, which Bob did. The model constitution for grottoes was adopted.

An Executive Board consisting of the following five were elected: Bob Fisher, Clifford Davis, Dick Hoffmaster, Graham Netting and Bob Dunn. Bob Fisher was elected Chairman and Bob Dunn Secretary-Treasurer. A 25 cent contribution was made by each member to the Treasurer. The Pittsburgh Grotto was in operation!


The new Grotto continued to hold monthly meetings at Carnegie Museum., and its membership increased steadily. The attendance at the second meeting included, among others, Will Schnarrenberger, John Guilday; the third meeting Allen McCrady and Ed Taylor; the fourth meeting Julia Staniland Day; and by March 1948, forty-five persons were in attendance.

The first trip of the Pittsburgh Grotto was, naturally, to Dulaney’s Cave.

In January 1948, it was decided the Grotto’s fiscal year should correspond with the calendar year. New elections were therefore held. At the second Board of Governors meeting in March, annual dues were established at one dollar per Grotto member.

By the April meeting, the current field trip procedure was suggested by Dr. Netting; i.e., that weekly field trips be scheduled with a trip leader named for each to organize it. Mimeographed sheets of the field trip schedule began to be published. Heretofore trips were announced by post card.

These flyers could also be called the birth of the Grotto newsletter, although it was Bob Dunn who suggested at the July 1948 Board meeting that the Grotto edit its own publication. This publication was to contain speleological matters as well as the field trip schedule. A Publication Committee was deemed essential to carry on the work of editing and mailing. Dick Hoffmaster was appointed temporary chairman.

Mrs. Staniland (Day) not only was kind enough to place her home completely at the disposal of the Grotto, but also donated a mimeograph machine (which she inherited with the house) and is used to this day (sic).

On August 10, 1948, appeared the Netherworld News, edited by Dick Hoffmaster.

With the publishing of a newsletter, acquiring a headquarters and holding regular meetings, the Grotto made steady progress. The meetings usually had a very social atmosphere with movies, slides and refreshments, but now and then there was present a guest of honor such as Dr. Stone, who gave an illustrated talk on caves and encouraged field work for the Pennsylvania Survey. The greatest accomplishments of the Pittsburgh Grotto, of course, were in the field.

By late 1950, formal activity began to decline. In 1951, Bob Dunn, Dick Hoffmaster and Allen McCrady were called into the Army and a seemingly inactive period ensued. Bob Riffing was in the Army Reserves and thereby remained to administer the affairs of the Grotto. Several general meetings per year were still held during these lean years. During 1951 and 1952, field trips dropped to one per month, but they picked up again in 1953, and continued to increase steadily.

On August 10, 1952, the Chairman of the NSS Grottoes Committee inquired about the status of the Pittsburgh Grotto. He had not received any semi-annual reports. This was remedied, however, and the report submitted indicated that, even though the Grotto was not very active in so far as formal organization was concerned, its field work, especially the Pennsylvania Survey, was continuing.

The 1950 Recreation Guide to the Pittsburgh Region published by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development contained the following listing: "For information of cave explorations, contact the Pittsburgh Grotto, National Speleological Society, 373 Atlantic Avenue, Pittsburgh 24, Pa."

In March 1954, the Grotto was trying to find new ways to arouse interest in Grotto activities. Dick Hoffmaster contacted some of the newspapers and had notices printed about the general meetings. Allen McCrady contacted the advertising agency of Walker and Downing and asked whether it would be possible to have some of the Grotto members appear on their program "Time Out for Hobbies", a weekly fifteen minute television show dealing with interesting and unusual hobbies. They agreed and Dick and Allen decided to appear on the show March 2. Master of Ceremonies Dick Garret asked general questions such as the public would ask, caving equipment was displayed, and a demonstration given on climbing a cable ladder. As a result letters and post cards were received by the Grotto from people interested in caves.

In October 1954, The Pittsburgh Grotto was asked to investigate the entrance to a legendary passageway near Old Fort Ligonier. This was the first time the Grotto was called upon to render their services to the public. This was a day of digging and examining. Dick Hoffmaster, Bob Ruffing and Bob Dunn discovered a collapsed sinkhole connecting with the exit of the passageway. This shed some light on the legend as it showed a short cut to the outer retrenchments of the fort.

In March 1955, the Grotto experienced a revival, greatly aided by new member William B. White. Activity began to climb to an all time high.

Willy had been an active NSS member since June 1953. First he was a Nittany Grotto member; in March 1954 he helped found the Standing Stone Grotto; and in March 1955 he joined the Pittsburgh Grotto. Actually he came to Pittsburgh in June 1954, but it was not until January that the Pittsburgh Grotto found HIM. Bob Dunn, ever in search for new members, saw his name in the NS change of address list and, according to Willy, came knocking on the door of Mellon Institute asking whether Will was an active spelunker. With an answer of yes, Bob invited him on a field trip.

After a few trips, talk naturally got around to holding meetings and editing a newsletter. Willy obtained permission from Dr. Coleman, who was in charge of the building, to hold monthly Grotto meetings in Mellon Institute. Then he accepted the editorship of the "Netherworld News". His first issue in March 1955 announced a meeting at the Mellon Institute and the Grotto was back in operation again.

Grotto Projects --- The First Ten Years

Mineral and Speleothem Collection

At the second Grotto meeting in November 1947, a Formations and Mineralogy Committee was established with Bob Ruffing as Chairman. It was felt that the acquiring of one speleothem for scientific purposes would prevent numerous individual collections. A fairly extensive collection of identified specimens was assembled by various members, especially Dick Hoffmaster. Prior to the first anniversary of the Grotto, this collection was assembled and arranged in a display case at the headquarters at 373 S. Atlantic Avenue. In the Spring of 1957 the collection was moved to the new headquarters in the King Estate. The formations were washed, relabeled and arranged in a large display case donated by Ralph Krichbaum.

In early 1953, Marion LeLong performed a cross section study of stalagmites at the Mellon Institute. The project consisted of cutting the stalagmites into cross sections, polishing and mounting them in pin sections so that they could be projected on screens. Color photographs were taken of them, using polarized light with some to show the stress concentrations in the cross section. These cross sections are included in the display.

(Note: With the ever increasing concern over vandalism and the changing attitudes towards collecting, no new formations were added. In 1969, when the Grotto relinquished its offices in the King Estate, the Grotto Mineral and Formation Collection was presented to Carnegie Museum.)

Western Pennsylvania Cave Survey

At the 1950 NSS Convention, the Publications Committee announced that a bulletin devoted to caves of Pennsylvania was planned which would bring up to date Dr. Stone’s Bulletin G-3 "Pennsylvania Caves", published in 1932, which listed over a hundred caves.

On April 12 and 14, 1950, letters were received from the NSS President requesting that the Pittsburgh Grotto lay plans for working with the committee and develop material for the bulletin. This was to be accomplished by field work, making maps and collecting fauna. All information was to be sent to Dr. Ralph W. Stone, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Survey.

Since the organization of the Grotto, members had assumed the responsibility of cave reporting as a natural function of the Grotto. However, with the solicitation of the Grotto’s assistance, a definite and more organized effort by Bob Dunn, Dick Hoffmaster and Ed Taylor was begun.

The first reconnaissance trip to the McConnellsburg Quadrangle by the above three members plus Bob Ruffing and Allen McCrady resulted in the discovery of seven caves not listed in Bulletin G-3. From then on the field trip schedules included several reconnaissance trips per month.

When Bob Dunn and Dick Hoffmaster entered the service, the survey was carried on by correspondence. Dr. Stone would write to Bob Dunn, Bob Ruffing or Ed Taylor and let them know what specific information was needed, and with a combined effort it would be finished in time. Ed Taylor’s specialty was the drawing of many fine maps.

By May 1953, as the survey completion date drew nearer, Dr. Stone offered financial assistance to the Grotto for field trips to gather data.

In December 1953, Bulletin 15 "The American Caver" was published. Therein Dr. Stone expressed appreciation for, and acknowledged the contributions of, Bob Dunn, Dick Hoffmaster, Bob Ruffing and Ed Taylor. They had contributed roughly 1/6 of the cave descriptions, five maps and three photographs. Will White, a Nittany Grotto member at the time, contributed to the description of four caves.

Since publication of Bulletin 15, about sixty additional caves have been reported and the survey continues. In March 1957, the Mid Appalachian Region decided to assist the National in making a complete set of Pennsylvania cave reports for the National Cave Files.

(In later years publications of Caves of Western Pennsylvania have appeared and is nearing a re-publication. The history of these efforts will appear in future installments.)

The 1954 NSS Convention

The annual NSS Convention for 1954 was scheduled to be held in Pittsburgh during April 2, 3, 4. Jack Parker, Convention Chairman, enlisted the aid of Dick Hoffmaster to arrange hotel accommodations and meeting places for the various sessions. The time for making these arrangements was short, but the Grotto managed to get the Hotel Webster Hall as convention headquarters with meetings scheduled at nearby Carnegie Museum and Mellon Institute.

A large, attractive program brochure was printed as well as an informational pamphlet on field trips, which included two location maps of Western Pennsylvania Caves by Ed Taylor. Local cavers made themselves available as field trip leaders and provided transportation to visitors. Good newspaper publicity was received.

In all, it turned out to be the largest and most interesting NSS Convention held up to that time. The NSS NEWS highly praised the Pittsburgh Grotto for the fine work done. It credited the Grotto with having done the most complete job of planning field trips ever experienced at a Convention.

Jones Quarry Cave

Although fragments of bone, later identified by the Smithsonian Institute as Indian, had been found in Jones Quarry Cave as early as 1947 by NSS members, no systematic or professionally directed excavations were made until January of 1955.

At that time, acting upon a tip from James Houck and John Thayer of Baltimore, who had found a large deposit of bones in a portion of the cave not mapped by Davies in "Caves of West Virginia", the Grotto scheduled a trip to the cave. Drs. J. Leroy Kay and Kenneth Doutt of Carnegie Museum accompanied a party of sixteen Pittsburgh cavers to Falling Waters, West Virginia to begin work.

The usual agreement was made with the cave owner limiting access to the NSS and the Museum.

In March, a return trip resulted in the recovery of more bone and the blasting of a new entrance to the cave directly above the burial "crypt".

Eight subsequent trips extending in time to September of 1957 have been made to the cave. All told, the remains of at least eight ancient Indians, ranging from infant to adult, two shell pendants, and one bone gouge have been turned over to Carnegie Museum for their permanent collection.

Dick Hoffmaster, Bob Dunn, Ralph Bossart, Allen McCrady and later Walt Stein have been among the most active workers on this project.

Scientifically the find was of considerable interest, as the occurrence of Indian cave burials east of the Mississippi are rare. Don Dragoo, one of the participating members of the Museum staff, was especially interested in the pathological condition of portions of the bones. (McCrady)

Dulaney’s, Hineman and Laurel Creek Cave Movie Attempts

In the summer of 1950, Bob Dunn decided on a film project for the Grotto. In correspondence with Ivan Sanderson, Director of Publicity for the NSS, he received advice on movie selling and publicity. Encouraged by this, Allen McCrady, Dick Hoffmaster and Bob lugged automobile batteries into Dulaney’s Cave and Dick wired them into automobile headlamps for lighting purposes. Fifty feet of film was taken on an old 8mm movie camera which turned out quite underexposed.

The second attempt was in Hineman Cave. For this, Dick rebuilt an old motor and made it into a generator. Bob’s Jeep was also used. However, the film was not developed and the results were never known.

A third attempt at movie taking was to be done by driving Bob’s Jeep into Laurel Creek Cave and using the headlamps for lighting. This also failed due to the Jeep falling into a sinkhole on the way to the cave and being put out of commission. These three movie attempts were, to some degree, experience for the Schoolhouse Movie. More aptly put by Bob Dunn, it was an experience in how not to make a movie.

Schoolhouse Cave Movie

The March 1957 meeting of the Pittsburgh Grotto featured a showing of a movie entitled "Underground Adventure" taken in Schoolhouse Cave, Pendleton County, West Virginia.

During the Grotto’s history, several attempts to produce a motion picture were made to show underground exploration. It was decided to make an all out effort at Schoolhouse. On November 12, 1955, a reconnaissance trip showed the project to be feasible. Thanksgiving weekend of that year saw twenty-seven members, the Grotto truck, and masses of equipment gathered at the newly acquired Field House near Seneca Caverns for the project.

Six more trips, innumerable technical problems, 2000 feet of exposed film and a year and a half later, the Grotto was proud to show the film at the April 1957 Convention.

A lot of effort, considerable ingenuity and wholesale cooperation had accomplished the job.

Borrowed equipment included Ralph Bossart’s 2.5 KW generator obtained from Monsignor Kushner of Donora, Pa., and 2000 ft. of No. 4 rubber covered cable from NSS member C. N. Bruce of New Castle. Equipment was transported in the Grotto truck and one borrowed from the John B. McCrally Company of Verona, and in Clarence Sandy’s trailer.

Of the seven trips necessary, there were never less than ten members and guests, and sometimes as many as thirty.

Bob Dunn devised lighting devices for the work, supervised wiring and, together with Allen McCrady, directed the production. Without Ralph Bossart’s know-how and aid the project would have been more difficult. In fact, the entire Grotto contributed in time, money and muscle.

In its present form, the movie needs a few minor changes before it will be ready for reproduction, but the biggest problem has been (and is) the financing of a negative and duplicate prints.

The final print will be approximately 1600 feet in length and will run about twenty minutes. As its title indicates, the film is a pictorial record of an actual trip through Schoolhouse Cave, from the planning stage to the Hodag Room and return. (McCrady).

The National Speleological Society Library

At one of the Mid Appalachian Region meetings in 1955, the Pittsburgh Grotto representatives (Allen McCrady, Bob Dunn and Dick Hoffmaster) informally suggested to the Vice President for Administration of the NSS that the National Headquarters be moved to Pittsburgh and housed at the King Estate. The idea aroused little enthusiasm. At the February 1956 NSS Board Meeting, the Pittsburgh Grotto formally offered the King Estate to the NSS to use as a headquarters. In compromise, the Vice President for Administration, who was in charge of the NSS Library, suggested moving the library to Pittsburgh. Previous discussion on the matter between Burton Faust and Julia Staniland (Day) had already taken place. Mrs. Day was a certified librarian and had indicated she would take the job as Librarian. It was therefore agreed that she would take the job as Librarian and the Library was transferred to Pittsburgh.

On February 25, Willy White, Ralph Bossart and Jack Leppla drove to Washington D.C. to pick up library material. Three bookcases, a file cabinet and many boxes of books were brought to the King Estate.

A budget was obtained from the NSS to run the Library on a fairly professional level. A Grotto Library Committee, consisting of Allen McCrady, Bob Dunn, Dick Hoffmaster, Willy White and Ralph Bossart evolved to aid the Librarian in the functions and administration of the Library. Supplies for binding and cataloguing were obtained. A book list was completed and distributed at the 1956 Convention. A set of regulations for use of the Library were established.

In Fall, Hermine Zotter and Rita Battisola began to devote weekly sessions to library work. Hermine started a long range project on Grotto publications. Lists of missing issues were prepared and mailed to pertinent Grottoes. The help of all Grottoes was solicited in compiling and indexing complete volumes for binding.

The Librarian’s job became Julia Staniland’s (Day) in 1956. At about this time the Library had begun to gravitate from the King Estate to the home of Julia at 373 S. Atlantic Avenue where the Library remained until 1969.

The last thirteen year’s of this project’s history will appear in a later issue.


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