Ohnmacht Cave

(Editor’s Note: Dean H. Snyder, a fellow the NSS and winner of the Peter M. Hauer Spelean History Award, and MAKC member, recently completed : “The Hidden Green Diamond: A History of the Caves in Berks County, Pennsylvania.” The softcover book, with a perfect binding, contains 74 pages of history of the caves of Berks County, including Crystal Cave, the earliest commercial cave in Pennsylvania, and Onyx Cave, a former commercial cave. To order the book, at $15 per copy, plus $2 postage and handling, contact Dean at 3213 Fairland Dr., Schnecksville, Pa., 18078-2878, 610-799-5030. The excerpt below, reprinted with permission, contains the tale of Ohnmacht Cave, once a spectacular cave that is no longer here.)

By Dean H. Snyder

Ohnmacht Cave was located in a limestone quarry 200 feet north of the Tulpehocken Creek on the property of Adam and Katie Ohnmacht in Bern Township.1 The quarry was operated by John C. Essig and his brother Robert for limestone, which was burned in two nearby kilns to produce lime for local farmers. The quarry began removing rock during the nineteenth century, was abandoned by 1900, and became active again with the Essig operation in 1932. About 1947, the workers were surprised to find that their drill bit encountered a void in the limestone. After some charges of dynamite were set, a low but wide entrance to a cave was revealed. The men poked their heads inside the opening to see a room that contained a beautiful small pool of water. It took several months of quarrying until the opening was large enough to enter.2

The quarry workers considered the cave as a nuisance and tried to avoid the area, resulting in only the first 15 to 20 feet of cave being quarried away. Mr. Essig was so impressed with the cave’s beauty that he contacted the National Geographic Society, but he never received a response. The quarry operated until the late 1960s, when cheap commercially produced lime made the operation economically impractical.2

By the late 1950s, the entrance to Ohnmacht Cave was a two-foot wide hole at the base of the quarry wall. The cave was formed along a five-foot vertically displaced normal fault that was clearly visible across the quarry face. About half of the cave’s length consisted of a 120-foot long main passage which ran east-northeast along the fault plane. The passage was six feet wide and ranged in height from four to 25 feet. At the far end of the cave, a 15-foot mud chute led to an upper level room. This room measured nine by 25 feet and had a 12-foot high ceiling. The northwest corner of this room had a four-foot diameter passage that extended 26 feet in a northwest direction. 3 Ohnmacht Cave was richly decorated with various forms of speleothems, including bacon, rimstone, draperies, stalactites and stalagmites. Some of these were pure white and were described as being made of aragonite.4

Although no one in the Ohnmacht family ever entered the cave, Adam and Katie were always quite cordial in allowing visitors into their cave, only asking explorers to check back in with them after they got out of the cave. Unfortunately, some speleothems were removed by vandals, especially on weekends when the quarry was not in operation.5

Ohnmacht Cave was not mentioned in Ralph Stone’s 1953 Caves of Pennsylvania.6 The cave was first described in 1957 in the Netherworld News by Paul D. Fisher, who mapped the cave with Norman Hiester. This description and map also appeared in the 1957 SpeleoDigest. 7 About 1962, Doug Medville, Jim Siwik, Terry Sweitzer, and Ed Tapp produced their own map with slightly greater detail, although their map had the compass direction reversed.8 The events that led to the destruction of Ohnmacht Cave began in 1955, when floods along the Delaware River tributaries killed 90 people and caused $100 million in property damage.9 As a result, Congress authorized a study of the Delaware River basin. The US Army Corps of Engineers recommended 11 major reservoirs to be constructed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware. The Delaware River Basin Commission accepted the locations of eight of these eleven, seven of which were in Pennsylvania. Two dams were proposed for Berks County: the Maiden Creek and Blue Marsh projects.10

The Maiden Creek project, to be completed by 1982, would have cost $31 million and covered 8,450 acres along the Maiden Creek. The dam would have totally inundated Virginville and Lenhartsville, forcing the re-location of 600 families. Some of the largest and most popular caves in Berks County would have been destroyed, including Crystal, Onyx, Dragon, and Dreibelbis.11

The Blue Marsh Lake project, originally set for completion by 1969, would create a 1,775-foot long compacted earth-and-rock-fill dam across the Tulpehocken Creek. The dam and site would cover 5,300 acres and cost $16 million. 10 No known caves would be affected by the dam.

Residents immediately protested the dam sites. The Maiden Creek Citizens’ Committee 12 and Berks Pomona Grange 13 opposed the Maiden Creek project, arguing that Lake Ontelaunee already provided Reading with enough drinking water. Furthermore, they stated that the need for flood control was not justified; valuable farmland would be lost; and undue hardship would result from the re-location of so many people. Congress never approved funds for the Maiden Creek Dam. Opposition to the Blue Marsh Dam lessened when its location was shifted east of Bernville.9 Unfortunately, Ohnmacht Cave, with its entrances only a few feet above the creek, was now destined to be destroyed by the new dam.

Before dam construction began, Samuel Gundy, a biology professor at Kutztown State College and former director of the Reading Public Museum, sawed off stalactites and flowstone which decorated Ohnmacht Cave. The stalactites were given to his friends; the flowstone was sold to a rock shop.14 Loring Emery also removed a few broken speleothems from the cave, some of which were given to the geology department at Albright College and Penn State University.15

The 91.45 -acre Ohnmacht property, including the quarry and cave, was purchased from Katie Ohnmacht on June 28, 1972.16 Construction of the dam began on January 4, 1974. The abandoned quarry was used as a source of rock for rip rap for the upstream face of the dam. During this work, the front portion of the cave was destroyed. After all of the needed stone was removed, the remaining portion of the cave was sluiced shut with sand and the entrance was covered by rock. When the dam was completed in 1979, it was designed to contain 11 billion gallons of flood water. The sealed entrance to what was left of Ohnmacht Cave was submerged under 25 feet of water.17

Today, the Blue Marsh Lake offers the public various water sports, hunting, hiking, bird-watching, and picnicking. More than a third of the acreage is leased to the Pennsylvania Game Commission for wildlife management. Millions of dollars in flood damage and possible loss of life have been saved since the dam’s construction. But these benefits have come at a high speleological price: the destruction of Ohnmacht Cave, one of the finest caves in Berks County.
1 Fisher, Paul D. “Ohnmacht Cave (Pennsylvania),” The Netherworld News, Vol. 5, No. 10, 1957. Reprinted in SpeleoDigest 1957, Pittsburgh Grotto Press, April, 1958. This article incorrectly refers to Katie Ohnmacht as “Kattie.” Katie R. Ohnmacht (1883-1974) and Adam A. Ohnmacht (1867-1955) had seven children. Adam and Katie Ohnmacht are buried in the Bern Cemetery, just a short distance from the site of their farm.
2 Essig, John c. Personal communication, February 8, 1997.
3 Blue Marsh Lake Design Memorandum No. 3, Site Geology. US Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District.
4 Davis, Harold. “New Pennsylvania Caves,” Speleothems, Volume 8, No. 4, November, 1960. Davis incorrectly refers to Ohnmacht Cave as “Onmacht Cave.”
5 Mr. Essig states that he never removed formations from the cave to give to his customers as souvenirs, contrary to Fisher’s Netherworld News article of 1957.
6 Stone, Ralph W. Caves of Pennsylvania, NSS Bulletin 15, National Speleological Society, 1953.
7 The Fisher-Heister map was apparently used by the engineers in their plans to seal the cave during construction of the Blue Marsh Dam.
8 Mostardi, Mike, and Durant, Joe (editors). Caves of Berks County, MAR Bulletin #18, Mid-Appalachian Region of the National Speleological Society, December, 1991. Medville believes that the cave was probably mapped during a MAR Field Meet. The survey crew were members of the Philadelphia or Reading Grottos.
9 “Blue Marsh Lake.” A brochure published by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, 1990.
10 “Two Berks Dam Sites Approved by Delaware River Basin Commission.” The Patriot, December 21, 1961.
11 “Proposed Maiden Creek Dam Would Cover Parts of East Penn Valley.” The Patriot, November 17, 1960.
12 “Citizens’ Committee Asks Maiden Creek Dam Plans Be Stricken.” The Patriot, Kutztown, PA, July 27, 1963.
13 “Berks Pomonaa Grange Opposes Construction of Dams in County.” The Patriot, Kutztown, PA, June 8, 1961.
14 Gundy, Samuel. Personal communication, June 6, 1995. Dr. Gundy started caving as a boy in Charles Mohr’s summer nature classes at the Reading Public Museum in the early 1930s.
15 Emery, Loring. Personal communication, March 5, 1997.
16 Berks County Deed Book 1610, page 424; Tract 302 on Blue Marsh Lake Real Estate maps. Coincidentally, Berks County wsa still reeling from the effects of flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes when the property was bought.
17 Schoenebeck. Alfred. Personal communication, January 9, 1997. The contractor was the No. 1 Construction Company. The Ohnmacht stone farmhouse was torn down, their barn still stands.