By Kim Metzgar
I got to know Bob Eppley after the 1985 rescue of “Regina,” who became lost while waiting for friends near a Chestnut Ridge cave. She wandered away and triggered a search with hundreds of firemen. I was a reporter for the Latrobe Bulletin at the time and I got paired with Bob, who knew the ridge well, as we searched the ridge from Derry to Fairfield townships.
I eventually began joining Eppley and his gang, informally organized as the Chestnut Ridge Explorers Association (CREA), and actually met my husband Tom at a talk Bob gave on caving at the Indiana County Historical Society.
Bob would show up every Sunday at 1 p.m. in Hillside to search for caves. He provided me with his often-cited report of Loyalhanna Limestone caves on Chestnut Ridge, which more than doubled the number of documented caves in Westmoreland County listed in William B. White’s Caves of Western Pennsylvania, 1976.
Bob had a lifelong interest in caves. He dug open his first “cave” in the Moxham section of Johnstown in 1944. The “cave” was really a four-foot-long excavation into a slope under the alley at the rear of the backyard of the family home. He was not a stranger to the underground even then for his grandfather Phillippi, a coal miner, had previously introduced him to the underground (coal mines in Indiana County).
Bob departed Indiana County to pursue college and graduate studies with the hopes of never having to live in coal country again. Attending college and particularly a summer institute in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, led to associations with several scientific organizations, one of which was composed of a group of “spelunkers,” a term they used proudly in 1959. This group introduced Bob to many caves in Tennessee and Kentucky, including Grassy Cove Cave, Grand Caverns (a.k.a. Atomic Caverns), Fox Bone Cave and several then-unnamed caves in Tennessee.
Returning to West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia, Bob and other Wesleyan students and faculty members continued to explore caves. They learned of some Pennsylvania caves to the north and began with what was then called Dulaney’s Cave, now Laurel Caverns.
Caving was seldom-pursued during graduate school years and subsequent work in New York. A few caves were visited near State College, but Dr. Eppley, the new research chemist, began building a family and a career.
A layoff returned the Eppley family, including his wife Diane, two children, Kathleen and Rex, to Indiana County, where Bob would learn of the true extent of the Loyalhanna Limestone and its “innards.” In 1978 he formed the Chestnut Ridge Explorer’s Association, aimed at rediscovering and exploring caves listed in Caves of Western Pennsylvania. The group became heavily involved in opening new caves and catalogued over 30 virgin caves in Chestnut Ridge.
He was a long-time member of the National Speleological Society, with the membership number #21029RE.
He discovered 104 caves in Westmoreland County, 11 in Indiana County, 6 in. Fayette County, and probably more than that.
His biggest contribution was inspiring so many other cavers to go out and look for caves, helping us document 327 caves in Westmoreland County and serving as a contributing editor to Caves of Westmoreland County, Mid-Appalachian Bulletin 20. He was a founding member of Loyalhanna Grotto in 1987, and helped arrange for the group to meet at Indiana University of Pennsylvania initially. Activities of his group waned due to the age of some of the participants and family considerations of others. His work inspired us to form the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy as well.
His detailed logbooks were among the key components in the successful battle to halt a proposed limestone quarry that would have obliterated many caves in the Hillside area in Westmoreland County, as detailed in the book One Voice. He not only helped us save the caves, but he taught us all to love caves. Many people went on CREA outings through the years, but very few endured. Except Bob.
Robert Lewis Eppley Jr., Ph.D., 78, went home to spend eternity with his Savior and Lord on Sunday, December 24, 2017. He was born August 27, 1939, to Robert Lewis Eppley and Naomi Elizabeth Phillippi Eppley in Johnstown.
Bob was an influential leader and a devoted husband, father and friend to many people.
He was passionate about the environment. Some of his accomplishments include cleaning up abandoned coal mine drainage and discovering caves as president and technical director of Blacklick Creek Water Association, leading and participating in the National Speleological Society and Chestnut Ridge Explorers Association. He was awarded Evergreen Conservancy’s lifetime achievement and the Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Reclamation Mayfly honor.
Bob earned his Bachelor of Science degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he met his wife, Diane, arranging for his seat to be beside her in chapel. He earned his doctoral degree at Penn State University while starting a family.
Bob’s extensive work background includes Kodak Corp., Borden Chemical, Babcock and Wilcox Co., Pittsburgh Testing Labs, Syntron, Eppley Technical Services, Power Safety and a tennis racket repair business among others.
He was an avid fisherman, spelunker, inventor, explorer, musician, reader and learner.
Surviving are his wife of 56 years, Diane J. Buenting Eppley; a son, Rex W. Eppley; a daughter, Kathleen M. Jennings (Allen W. Jennings); grandchildren Justin E. Eppley, Nicole R. Vasbinder (Mark Vasbinder), Haley E. Jennings Neal (Andrew Neal), Kevin B. Jennings and Jessie K. Jennings; one brother, G. Todd Eppley; two brothers-in-law, John W. Buenting (Maryann) and Ross L. Frazer; and many cousins, aunts, nieces and nephews.
In addition to his parents he was preceded in death by his sister, Melissa Ann Eppley Frazer.
A memorial service is being planned for a later date.
By Kim Metzgar