Indian Caverns: One Last Visit

By Kim Metzgar

Indian Caverns, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, first opened as a show cave in 1928. It was a dozen years shy of marking the centennial of that date. Sadly, while the MAKC was not aware that it had been put up for sale in 2015,
We heard about it from the cave’s website and Facebook page, and also as an agreement of sale was announced in the Altoona Mirror of May 3, 2016.
That article was as follows:
“Indian Caverns set to close in October
“FRANKLINVILLE–Indian Caverns is a step closer to being sold, but it isn’t a done deal.
“‘We have an agreement with the Wertz family for the purchase of the property,’ said Michael Knoop, land protection manager for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
“The Indian Caverns webpage states ‘2016 will be our last season as a commercial show cave. Due to a pending sale of the property, cavern tours will be ending the last weekend of October 2016.’
“Indian Caverns has been in the Wertz family since Harold ‘Hubby’ Wertz and his wife, Lenore, first visited the cave in 1928. It was opened to the public June 15, 1929.
“‘We recently submitted an application to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for a grant to help us purchase Indian Caverns,’ Knoop said. ‘Usually DCNR pays for about half of the cost; that is what we are looking for. DCNR will consider our application for the next several months. We hope for a resolution late this year or early next year.’
“The Rev. Aden Wertz of Tyrone, who owns the business with his sister, Judy Brisbin of Tipton, said it isn’t a done deal.
“‘It is a sale pending. If they don’t come up with the funding, it will go back on the market. We won’t know until June 2017,’ Wertz said.
“The conservancy has been interested in Indian Caverns since it was put up for sale last summer.
“‘Indian Caverns has a great deal of notoriety and significance; caves are a unique feature in Pennsylvania,’ Knoop said.
“If the sale goes through, Indian Caverns may not remain open to the public.
“‘That is to be determined by what the bats need,’ Knoop said. ‘We think the cave could be a hibernating site for bats if restored. There are some rare bats in that neighborhood.
“‘We have to wait until the Game Commission and U.S. Wildlife Service determine if the bats could use the cave. It could be good for native bats in that area,’ Knoop said. ‘We will go by what the experts recommend as far as whether people will be able to access the cave. It is a possibility (closed to public), but no decisions have been made.’
“If the conservancy is successful, it could open up an area of Spruce Creek to public fishing.
“‘Spruce Creek is a storied and well-renowned trout stream. It is very popular among fisher people. There is not a lot of public access to Spruce Creek. Indian Caverns has about 1,200 feet of property, which could become public fishing access; that is another possibility,’ Knoop said.
“Matt Price, Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau executive director, said it would be disappointing to lose a private enterprise attraction.
“‘The conservancy has a good reputation in western Pennsylvania for caring for important landscapes and landmarks. I don’t know what their plans are. It is initially disappointing but could be promising,’ Price said.
“‘If they close, it would be disappointing. There is also an area along Spruce Creek, which is lacking for public access. If they would open up that area to public access for fishing, that would be a good thing,’ he said.”
With that pending closure in mind—we all know that anything the Pennsylvania Game Commission gets cave-wise will pretty much be closed to cavers forever—I began planning a trip.
I had been to Indian Caverns twice before, once when I was dating Tom back in the Dark Ages, and another time while traveling through the area. I thought my nephew Tyler Reed would like to see the cave. Andrea and Ray Gillis were in, as was Sunni Reitmyer and Chance Bennett, who had, we learned, never been in a show cave before.
The cave was not much more than 1,300 feet long, although the way the cave was shown was the attraction, even after it became a bit outdated. It was reminiscent of the 19th century showman P.T. Barnum, Known for promoting hoaxes and founding the Barnum & Baiey Circus, he was one of the ultimate showmen.
It was only a few decades after Barnum died that Bear Wertz developed Indian Caverns as a show cave, in, as Dean Snyder called it, the “golden age for show caves in Pennsylvania. No fewer than 17 caves were open for visitors. Crystal, Indian, Indian Echo, Lincoln, Lost River, Penn’s, Woodward, and Coral are all in operation still today [written in 1989]. Alexander, Baker, Cold Air, Helfrich Springs, Hipple, Onyx, Seawra, Veiled Lady, and Womer are no longer seen by the public.
“It seems ironic that so many show caves would be in business during the days of the Great Depression,” Snyder said, “when few people had extra cash to spend on entertainment. However, with cheap labor, improvements to a cave could be made economically. At the same time, more and more people were discovering the freedom provided by the automobile.” (Pack Rat Scat, Number 34, Winter 1989, pages 6-10).
So, with the cave’s history in my thoughts, as well as faint memories of previous tours, we went. I didn’t let on to Andrea, to Ray, to William or to Sunni what was coming. Didn’t want to spoil it for them. I’ve got to say that I have always thought that the Indian Caverns tour was “hokey,” or, as one dictionary describes hokey, as “mawkishly sentimental.”
But it had its own charm. To me, it was reminiscent of days gone by, before cell phones and computers, back in the day when people talked to their neighbors and visited, in the day when gossip occurred while hanging clothes on the line, or visiting a back porch, Back in the day when kids actually went outside to play and exercise, back in the day when we might be inclined to believe it when someone said their cave was 13 miles long.
When we pulled into the parking lot Tyler and I and the gang went over to the teepee that had always been visible from the highway, something to attract passersby with. I don’t know when or why it was made in concrete. I didn’t recall the one when I first visited being constructed of that material. But memories fade. The dirt was trampled down around it and inside of it, from hundreds, thousands of visitors who had turned out in the last few months to get one last look.
We walked up the gravel slope and I looked at the nearby structures, some houses, a stone building, where the owners once lived, and the ticket booth and gift shop. I looked at the arrowhead shapes cut into the doors on the restrooms and thought of my grandfather. He probably would have liked Bear Wertz. I anticipated stops on the tour, the glowing dots in the last room, the case of arrowheads collected from who knows where. Everyone knew the guides would say they were from the Indians who lived in the cave. I anticipated all of the gullible tourists who didn’t know that most of what they were hearing, the scripted tour parts and the unscripted parts, was part of the folklore of the cave, part of that history told with P.T. Barnum in mind.
I anticipated the reactions of my friends, Ray and Andrea and Chance and Sunni, who all knew something about caves and who would have been—and were—much quicker to question the words of the guide. I enjoyed their reactions as much as I did the words of the guide, and wondered if that was what Bear Wertz had intended all along. I thought that if it were possible for one to watch from above, and if Bear was watching, that he would chuckle and nod his head in approval.
When the cave guides said that the hokey plastic plants just inside the entrance were reminiscent of the plant life around the cave back in the days of the Indians, and when the guides said the black markings on the walls were where the Indians smoked their meat, even though it was hundreds of feet into the cave and there was no ventilation, yes, it was hokey. When they pointed out the passageway that led to the “undiscovered” part of the cave, the part that went for miles, that was even hokier. I smelled the damp earth and closed my eyes, just for a moment imaging tours of years past, and decided that not much had changed. And I liked it. I didn’t want the tour to end, didn’t want it to become a thing of the past. But it did. And sadly, it is.

From the 2013 NSS
Convention Guidebook
“Historic Indian Caverns is located on the edge of Franklinville, Huntingdon County. The cave’s entrance on a bluff above Spruce Creek has long been known locally. It was systematically explored by Harold A. Wertz in 1928 and subsequently prepared as a show cave. Stone (1932) recounts some of the tales and legends associated with the cave.
“Indian Caverns is developed entirely in the Stover member of the Benner limestone, one of the more cavernous rock units in the valley. The beds dip 43 degrees southeast and strike north 54 degrees east. Indian Caverns was included in the extensive cave volume distribution study of Rauch (1972). Rauch was able to observe 1,386 feet of passage.
“The cave consists of two main parts, the long passages that include most of the length of the cave and the large chamber, a complex of rooms just inside the entrance.
“In common with most Appalachian caves, the long passages are strike-oriented. Cross-sections show an irregular geometry with sculptured walls and complex pendants and ceiling channels in some places. The strike passages tend to extend somewhat up-dip along bedding planes. Passages that cut the bedding planes are lower and often complexly-sculptured. Floor materials are usually masked by the graveled walkways but where visible appear to be mixed clay and gravel fill. Near the Frozen Niagara, a single massive limestone bed has been left and the beds on both sides of it dissolved. The result is a continuous rock partition that, being tilted at the bedding dip, is midway between a bedrock pillar and a natural bridge. It is a striking feature and was used by J. Harlan Bretz as the type example of the continous rock span in his class work on the origin of caves. There is little breakdown in the long passage sections of the cave and most walls show little evidence of fallen blocks. An exception is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which is located near the point where the long passages join to the large chamber. Here, the intersection of roughly 45 degree, dipping bedding planes are perpendicular joints that have resulted in a zone of weakness that dropped a single massive block.
“There is some evidence that the large chamber is a fragment of a major conduit. The southwest end of the chamber is blocked by an artificial stone wall and was apparently an opening to the hillside at one time. The northeast end of the chamber breaks into three passages, one of which leads to the entrance.
“Considerable breakdown has taken place at this point and much of it has been covered by flowstone so that the original trend of the conduit is obscured. The four “rooms” shown on the tour, The Indian Grave Room, The Council Room, The Relic Room, and the Grotto of Wah Wah Taysee are in fact all part of a large chamber separated into several parts by rockfalls.
“Speleothems are scattered throughout the cave. There is an extensive display of stalagmites and columns that act as a partition across the main chamber. Most of the long passages are devoid of secondary deposition. The Frozen Niagara is a massive flowstone cascade some 20 to 30 feet in length and of considerable height on the wall of the passage where it has been enlarged upward along the bedding planes. The Jewel Room contains many smaller dripstone deposits and the one end of the room is completely blocked by rimstone dams.
“The Spruce Creek Valley is a dissected erosion surface. The valley uplands, which appear nearly flat further to the northeast, are here dissected into a rolling hilly country. The upland surface is at 1,100 feet elevation but Spruce Creek has cut down to below 900 feet. The creek winds along the base of Tussey Mountain in a meandering pattern so that the bends of the meander jut out from the mountain skirts as isolated hills. The hill containing Indian Caverns is 1,060 feet at its summit. The cave itself is at about the 950-foot level. The cave for the most part parallels the western flank of the hill and does not penetrate far beneath it. It is almost certainly related to an earlier stand of Spruce Creek, but the absence of extensive scalloping, stream scouring, or cobble fills indicates that the cave was not likely a route of the stream itself. The position of the cave coincides with a distinct maximum in cave development at the 950 foot level that Rauch found for all caves in the Nittany Valley….The purported prehistoric use of the interior of the cave by Indians is contradictory to the extensive research made by C.A. Weslager.”
—William B. White, The Caves of Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, MAR Bulletin 9, June 1975, pages 41-42.
“The history of Indian Caverns and its development as a show cave is drawn from its website:
“‘From the early nineteenth century, the residents of Franklinville thought that the cave situated along the banks of Spruce Creek ended in a small room where local settlers scratched their names and the dates of their visits—the earliest being 1816. They may also have thought that they were among the first to explore the several rooms and passages of the cave.
“‘All of that changed in 1928 when a curious and adventurous young couple made their first visit to the cave. Harold A. ‘Hubby’ Wertz, Sr. and his wife, Lenore, were from nearby Tyrone and were avid spelunkers. When they reached what was believed to be the deepest chamber of the cavern, Hubby observed that the room was primarily formed by erosion rather than solution. He figured that the water which had formed the cave had to have flowed somewhere from that room. He and Lenore started digging around in the clay floor and discovered a small opening, less than twelve inches in diameter—which proved to be the entrance to an extensive new section of cave. What they eventually found was nearly triple the size of the cave system as it had previously been known.
“‘After making their discovery, Hubby and Lenore began acquiring the land and mineral rights, hoping to develop the cavern and open it to the general public. Through careful exploration of the small entrance they’d discovered, they were able to blast through fourteen feet of limestone to discover what is now known as Giant’s Hall.
“‘Also during early work on the cave, they began to hear some of the local lore surrounding the notorious outlaw, David Lewis. By checking local history, they realized that Lewis had a very strong link with the cave and had, indeed, used it as a hideout.
“‘But the biggest surprise was yet to come. Hubby and Lenore had originally intended to call their new venture Franklin Caverns. However, as workmen were leveling the clay floors in the first room, they unearthed some arrowheads which proved to be over 400 years old. Construction work halted while a team of archaeologists excavated more than 500 artifacts, as well as some skeletal remains, in the first three rooms. These relics were identified by the U.S. National Museum as belonging primarily to the Mohawk and Lenape tribes.
“‘After two years of excavation and a $500,000 investment, Hubby and Lenore opened ‘Historic Indian Cave’ on June 15, 1929—four months before the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. With $50 left, Hubby, Lenore, and their two children moved to Miami, Florida, where they eventually opened an Indian trading post. From 1930 to 1941, the Wertz family returned each summer to open the cavern and each winter operated the Trading Post. During that time, they also changed the name of the cave to Indian Caverns.
“Following the tragic death of Lenore Wertz in a car accident in 1941, the family settled permanently in Pennsylvania. Hubby and his son, Harold A. ‘Bear’ Wertz, Jr., then aged fourteen, formed a partnership to run Indian Caverns—a partnership which remained intact until Hubby’s death, after sixty years in the business, in 1987.
“‘Bear Wertz and his wife Jo operated the caverns as a partnership from 1987 until Bear’s death in 2004. Bear also spent over sixty years in the cave business. Following his death, it was incorporated by his wife and three children. His grandson, Harold Aden Wertz, IV, managed Indian Caverns for the next two years. Most recently Bear’s son, Bill Wertz, operated the caverns from 2007 until his untimely death in June of 2009. Today, the cave is still owned and operated by the Wertz family.’”

H.W. Rauch (1972). The Effects of Lithology and Other Hydrogeolgic Factors on the Development of Solution Porosity in the Middle Ordovician Carbonates of Central Pennsylvania. Ph.D. Thesis in Geochemistry, The Pennsylvania State University, 530 pages.
R.W. Stone (1932). Pennsylvania Caves. Pennsylvania Geologic Survey Bulletin G-3, pages 82-86.
C.A. Weslager (1953). Red Men on the Brandywine, Wilmington, Delaware.
John Witthoft (1951) Historic Indian Caverns. The Pennsylvania Archaeologist, Volume 21, Numbers 1-2.